Please Don’t Stop the Music

band students

Research shows that playing a musical instrument is great for your brain. (Photo credit: Radius Images/Alamy)

Do you listen to music or play an instrument? If so, research shows you’re giving your brain an excellent workout.

“The sounds of our lives change our brain,” said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab. “In our lab, we investigate how our life in sound changes the brain, and how different forms of enrichment or decline influence how our brain processes sound.”

Kraus, Professor of Neurobiology and Physiology, developed a new way to measure how the brain makes sense of sound. In order to measure the brain’s response to sound, speech or music is played directly into a volunteer’s ears. The electricity produced by the brain as it converts sound is measured via sensors that are attached to the volunteer’s head. According to their research, which involved thousands of volunteers ranging in age from infants to the elderly, factors that influence the brain’s ability to process sound range from playing music and learning a new language to aging, language disorders, and hearing loss.

“Making sense of sound is one of the most computationally complex tasks we ask our brains to do, because we process information in microseconds,” said Kraus. “Sound processing in the brain really is a measure of brain health.”

Kraus’ research also indicated that sound processing difficulties could be offset over time through music education (such as participating in music classes) or learning a new language.

In a separate study, researchers in the Kraus lab found that music training, even when begun as late as high school, had a profound impact on the teenage brain’s response to sound and also aided in sharpening hearing and language skills. Their research indicated that students with the most improvement in sound processing skills attended weekly music classes.

In the longitudinal study, the researchers followed two groups of students from their freshman through senior years of high school. One group attended band classes, which included two to three hours of weekly musical instruction. The second group were members of junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), which focused on fitness training.

The researchers found that the group that attended band class showed a more rapid maturation in the brain’s response to sound and had a higher sensitivity to sound details. They also determined that, while both groups saw an improvement in language skills linked to sound-structure awareness, the level of improvement was greater in the musically-inclined group.

This research underscores the importance of music education, which often finds itself on the chopping block when school budgets are facing cuts.

“While music programs are often the first to be cut when the school budget is tight, these results highlight music’s place in the high school curriculum,” said Kraus. “Although learning to play music does not teach skills that seem directly relevant to most careers, the results suggest that music may engender what educators refer to as ‘learning to learn.’”

More to Explore
Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory
How Band Class Alters the Teenage Brain 
How Music and Language Shape the Brain
Can’t Sing On-Key? Blame the Brain

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