The Brain on Music
On Wednesday, November 17, at 4 p.m. in 148 Miller Learning Center, the Willson Center sponsored a roundtable discussion on “The Brain on Music.” The lecture and discussion focused on the relationship of early music training to intellectual achievement in other areas. Roy Martin (Professor Emeritus of Educational Psychology and a violinist) gave the opening lecture. Panelists for the roundtable discussion included Jean Martin-Williams (Hugh Hodgson School of Music), Jed Rasula (English) and James W. Wilson (Mathematics Education). Martha Thomas (Hugh Hodgson School of Music) moderated the discussion. Following the Panel discussion, questions and comments were contributed by the audience.
Does Music Education Enhance the Developing Brain and Academic Achievement?
A Brief Review
(Draft 2. Not to be cited without the author's permission)
Roy P. Martin
College of Education, University of Georgia
Prepared for a roundtable discussion of
“The Brain on Music”
of the University of Georgia, Betty Jean Craige, Director
Does Music Education Enhance the Developing Brain and Academic Achievement?
A Brief Review
The purpose of this paper is to provide a summary of what is known about the relationship between arts education in general, and music education in particular, on the cognitive development of children. It is intended as a starting point for discussion of the consequences of arts education as one factor in fostering the optimal development of human potential. The review is limited in several ways. First, more emphasis will be placed on music education than dance, drama or the visual arts, although some work on arts education, in general, will be discussed. Also, the review is primarily limited to studies of school-aged children. Thus, long-term effects on adult achievement are not emphasized.
I feel some obligation to provide a disclaimer regarding my expertise in the topic under discussion. I have limited expertise as a scholar of this topic. I have come to this discussion as a result of a general interest in music education. In part this interest is based on having participated in a fine public school music educational program as a child. This experience provided the foundation for a life-long participation (as an amateur) in a wide range of music experiences. The other expertise I bring to this discussion is a background in educational psychology which has kept me abreast of research on some aspects of brain, cognitive and behavioral development. Finally, my training in research methodology plays a central role in shaping my view of the current state of the research on the consequences of a musical education.
There is a vast body of research on the relation of music education to academic achievement, general cognitive ability, and some aspects of brain development. Distilling this body of work is greatly facilitated by the appearance in the past 15 years of a number of extensive reviews. Therefore, this brief summary will rely heavily on these reviews and a few selected studies that seem particularly illustrative of the main themes of the paper. The works of Chandresekaran and Kraus (2010), Eisner (1998), Schellenberg (2006), Patel (2008) and Winner and Cooper (2000) were particularly noteworthy in this regard.
Why Is There Interest in the Associations Between Music Education, Academic Achievement and Brain Development?
Why is there so much interest in the potential effects of music education, specifically, or arts education, in general, on academic achievement? In some ways the interest in this question is rather peculiar. There is no similar intense interest in the scholarly community on the association of sports education to academic achievement? To my knowledge there is no similarly large literature on the effects of language education on achievement in mathematics.
The fact is that arts education is being marginalized in American public education (Winner & Cooper, 2000). The arguments for reduction in arts programs are based on the notion that the public schools are widely perceived as not preparing the general population in basic reading and mathematics skills. Therefore, any curricular activity that takes time from instruction in these basic skills is viewed with suspicion. Thus, in many communities activities related to the graphic arts, dance, drama, and music are being cut to give more time to what is perceived as basic skill development. This process is exacerbated by the recent economic downturn which places enormous pressure on schooling budgets. Under these circumstances, arts educational programs are often the first to be cut.
There is, however, a contrary trend. Since many interventions in American public education have not resulted in the gains in achievement that the designers and policy makers had hoped would occur, some educational theorists have turned their focus away from the teaching of more content knowledge, toward more fundamental issues of the developing child. Based on important recent advances in neuro-science, some have looked to the arts, particularly music education, as a means to enhance the development of the central nervous system (CNS) of young children. These theorists have looked for activities and experiences that might foster some aspects of neurological development that will, in turn, enhance the sensory, attentive, and emotional-regulation of the child. These behavioral manifestations of enhanced neurological development are then expected to facilitate learning of basic skills (reading and mathematics), and to have positive consequences for the ability of the child to adapt to an ever-changing environment.
Often arts educators have uncritically supported this developmental point of view, and have made claims for the advantages of their programs in this regard. The violinist Isaac Stern is quoted (Winner & Cooper, 2000, page 11) as saying, “Teaching the arts to the very young, particularly music because it is such a natural thing for a child to sing or dance or to sense rhythm, also helps them excel beyond all norms in logic, memory and mathematics, and there are generally accepted studies and statistics to back this up”. Similarly, Senator Allan K. Simpson is quoted (Winner & Cooper, 2000, page 11) as saying, “A love of art helps the learning process. . . . All studies tell us that”. One of the questions that will be addressed in this paper is whether these claims for arts education have been exaggerated.
The Seven Most Often Cited Reasons Why Arts Education Might Enhances Achievement
Most researchers on the consequences of arts education have not designed their research around a specific model or theory of how the arts might enhance the cognitive and emotional development of the child. However, anecdotal comments from arts advocates have speculated on the ways in which this type of experience might have such effects. The following list is an abbreviated summary based on the review of Winner and Cooper (2000).
1. Some cognitive skills that are developed by learning in the arts might be the same ones that are needed to do well in academic performance. These skills are said to include the focusing of attention; critical, divergent, or independent thinking; and problem solving.
2. Success in learning the arts enhance self-confidence and self-esteem, which will then transfer to academic subjects.
3. Learning in the arts requires perseverance. Having the experience of succeeding after long periods of practice might help transfer this perseverance to academic subjects.
4. Arts performance which requires public display of one’s work encourages the setting of high standards which might transfer to academic performance.
5. The arts often have a collaborative component in which children learn to perform with others and to develop social skills in collaboration. This kind of skill might enhance school performance in the same way.
6. Arts education relies on the presence of positive mentors often in the context of individual instruction. This provides a working model for the helpful relationship between mentor and student.
7. Participation in the arts may facilitate relaxation and stress reduction. This may allow students to return to their academic work more refreshed and motivated to learn.
Early Research on General Arts Education
To what extent have the assumed or hypothesized benefits of arts education been documented by researchers? The first point to be made is that very little of the available published research looked at the mechanisms cited above through which arts education might influence academic success. Instead, almost all the published reports are of the association between arts education and one or more academic outcomes without measurements taken of the mediating variables (the processes like those outlined above that might bring about the change.)
Most reports on the effects of one or more forms of arts (graphic arts, dance, drama, music) education on learning outcomes are anecdotal. That is, a group of arts educators who have implemented a program write a report documenting their views and perceptions of the outcomes that were achieved. Such reports, due to the potential for a variety of biases, provide little in the way of scientifically rigorous support for the positive effects of the arts on child development or academic achievement.
Some reviewers have attempted to summarize the more rigorous available research and have come to the conclusion that the arts have a positive effect on academic performance. However, the conclusions reached by the authors have been criticized on a variety of fronts. For example, on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, Welch and Greene (1995) attempted to evaluate and summarize the best research of about 500 studies on consequences of arts education. As reported by Eisner (1995), of the 23 most relevant studies, most were not published in peer-reviewed journals. Of those studies that were in refereed journals, the design of the studies left many questions unanswered regarding the claim that there was an enhancement of academic achievement. For example, in one project reported to demonstrate a positive effect (Dupont, 1992), creative drama was used to enhance the reading scores of a population of remedial or low-ability fifth graders. The program did have a significant effect. However, the aim of the program was to increase reading performance not to teach creative drama. Further, the population was a selected group of children judged to be in need of a remedial reading experience. This makes generalizing these results to a typical population of children difficult.
Research design issues also plague another type of research in this area. In this design, researchers look back at the performance of children who participated in arts education and then determine how these children performed on various measures of academic ability and achievement compared to a group of children who did not participate in arts education. These are often referred to as ‘correlational studies’. For example, Murfee (1995) found that Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of students who studied the arts for a period of more than four years were 59 points higher on the verbal and 44 point higher on the math portion than students with no course work or experience in the arts. At first glance such findings look promising and supportive of arts education. However, on reflection many problems arise in making this interpretation. First, did the children who elected to take an arts class for four years have the same academic background and general developmental status as those who did not elect to take such classes. The positive result in this case could simply be an epiphenomenon, an artifact of of the socio-economic status of the families of the participants in arts education. Many other factors related to academic ability could be implicated such as general cognitive ability. There is substantial empirical evidence that the selection of music training by children and their families is not random and is related to a range of variables related to academic achievement including cognitive ability (Barnet, 1987; Stancarone, 1992, cited in Costa-Giomi, 2004). Further, there is clear evidence that students taking part in musical instruction are from families with greater access to economic resources than children who do not. For example, Duke, Flowers, and Wolfe (1997) gathered questionnaire data from several regions of the country. They found that American piano students were predominantly female (70%), white Caucasian (80%), and lived in suburban homes that had pianos (96%). Eighty percent of the families had at least one family member with a college degree and 83% earned more than $40,000 per year.
Second, it is possible that schools that provide arts education as part of their curriculum are better than those that do not. Put in another way, schools that value the arts may promote innovation in other areas. These schools may have more access to monetary and community resources. If this is the case, the association between arts education and academic achievement is an epiphenomenon, not a causal link.
Third, it is not clear what specific skills were taught in ‘arts’ classes and what skills the children actually learned. Further, which skills were most likely to have contributed to their neurological or educational development that in turn would have enhanced their general achievement as measured by a test like the SAT. The SAT is primarily a measure of verbal and quantitative skill; it is not made clear by many researchers how these skills could be enhanced by most arts programs.
The sophistication of the research on the effects of arts education, particularly music education, greatly increased in the late 1990’s. However, a few well designed studies were available before this period. These studies have one or more experimental and control groups that are designed to control for confounding variables. For example Luftig (1993, 1994) in a series of studies investigated the effects of arts education on self-esteem, locus of control (does the child believe their efforts are the causes of their successes and failures, or do they believe the successes and failure are due to luck, or due to the behavior of others), creative thinking, appreciation of the arts, and academic achievement in the reading, vocabulary, reading comprehension, math application and math comprehension. The experimental group (the one receiving the arts program) did not differ from either of two well-designed control groups on any achievement outcome. Significant differences in favor of the experimental group were found for appreciation of the arts and a measure of creativity.
In summary, early research (primarily from 1970 through 1995) on arts education broadly conceived is not generally scientifically rigorous and the best studies provide very limited support for the positive effects on general achievement. This view has been supported by the most extensive and rigorous published reviews of this literature (e.g., Winner & Cooper, 2000). There is somewhat more support for the effect of arts programs on aesthetic appreciation.
Recent Research on Specific Aspects of Musical Instruction
Research reported in the past 10 to 15 years has improved in many ways. First, the nature of the arts program in much more clearly specified and documented. This is particularly true of research of music education. In music instruction, for example, effects of passive listening, keyboard instruction, or sight singing might be studied instead of simply defining the experimental group as having received musical instruction. Second, researchers have typically used more sophisticated research designs, particularly incorporating control groups and statistical controls for a variety of confounding factors that might account for outcomes. Third, outcomes are measured in more specific ways aimed at specialized cognitive functions (e.g., attention, emotional expression). Fourth, there has been an increased interest among brain researchers on the effects of musical training on several aspects of brain functioning. The following is a review of a few of these studies.
One area of interest is the short-term effects of passive listening. One effect has been referred to as the Mozart effect. This is the finding by some researchers that passive listening to music composed by Mozart produces temporary increases in spatial ability (Hetland, 2000b). This research captured the imagination of many including ex-Governor Zell Miller of Georgia who obtained corporate support for having recordings of classical music given to new mothers in the State. However, the so-called Mozart effect has been difficult to replicate (Chabris, 1999; Steele, Bass, & Cook, 1999). More recent work seems to indicate that when the Mozart effect does occur, it can be attributed to differences in psychological arousal and mood that are generated by the different musical testing conditions. Most often the effects of listening to Mozart are compared to those associated with sitting in silence for 10 minutes or listening to a somber piece of music. It may not be surprising that listening to some composition of Mozart induces more positive moods and more optimal levels of arousal (Husain, Thompson, & Schellenberg, 2002).
A second line of research is based on the idea that extended periods of musical training have a positive effect on cognitive skills that transfer to other cognitive tasks pertinent to the child’s life. Such research is based on the notion that the combination of experiences encountered in rigorous musical training has a positive impact on brain development particularly if the musical training occurs early in childhood when the brain is highly plastic and sensitive to environmental influences (Huttenlocher, 2002). Music lessons are thought of as a rich set of experiences that include practice in focused attention, learning how to practice a skill, learning to decode an abstract symbolic system (musical notation), development of a sense of patterns through practice with rhythm, practice in memorization, practice in fine motor dexterity, learning about the structure of music (chords, intervals, scales), and learning how emotions are expressed in music. Researchers seldom specify which type of practice they believe is the ‘active ingredient’ in their program. Instead, they hypothesize that this mixture of skill development has a positive effect on general cognitive development.
In support of this hypothesis, many researchers have noted that music lessons are associated with enhanced verbal memory (Ho, Sheung, & Chan, 2003), spatial ability (Hetland, 2000), and mathematics achievement (Cheek & Smith, 1999). However, this evidence is plagued by speculation that a third variable is accounting for the results, a variable that is common to interest and persistence in music lessons, and performance on cognitive tasks. As stated previously, to conclude that music lessons are a causative factor in enhancing cognitive ability the researcher must rule out potentially confounding effects such as general cognitive ability, socioeconomic status (Ceci & Williams, 1997, Schellenberg, 2004). In addition, they must demonstrate that other types of activites (e.g., participation in sports) do not have comparable effects on cognitive ability.
Schellenberg (2004) conducted a research project in which many of the confounding factors mentioned above were controlled. This study will be described in some detail because it illustrates several important points about transfer effects from music lessons. The research was conducted at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto on 144 6-year children who were randomly assigned to one of four groups. Two groups received either standard keyboard lessons or Kodaly voice lessons. The other two groups served as control groups, one receiving drama lessons and the other no lessons. All groups (with the exception of the no-lesson group) received instructions for 36 weeks. Children in the no lessons group received keyboard lessons the following year. Outcome measurements were obtained before the beginning of lessons (to obtain a baseline assessment) then after one year from the beginning of lessons. Outcome measures included assessments of general intelligence, a measure of educational achievement, and a parent-rated measure of social and emotional behavior.
Voice and keyboard lessons were both found to increase overall IQ scores by 2 or 3 points over increases that occurred for the control groups. This effect was statistically significant. The positive effect of the musical training was consistent across all four indices of the IQ measurement (Freedom from Distraction, Processing Speed, Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Organization), although the effects on Freedom from Distraction and Processing Speed were marginally larger than for the other two indices.
With regard to achievement (as opposed to cognitive ability) and social behavior, the results were less supportive of the positive effects of musical lessons. The four groups were found to have no differences on any aspect of the academic achievement. The drama group (a control group) had significant improvements in social behavior, but the musical lessons groups and the no lesson control group had no increase in this area.
It is important to carefully consider the outcomes of this well designed study. First, the 2 to 3 IQ point increase associated with musical lessons has no practical significance in the life of a child; it is much too small. Thus, this is a statistically significant effect, but not a practically significant effect. However, the fact that a 36-week experience had a measureable and reliable effect on aspects of cognitive ability is very promising and could result in larger gains if lessons were continued. With regard to the specific ingredient of the music lessons that may have had the most effect, it seems most likely that the positive effects were due to practice in focusing of attention since this and related effects could account for the wide range of changes measured on the IQ test. However, this is purely speculative no specific mediated model was tested. Second, why there were no comparable gains in achievement may at first seem puzzling, but may be due to the curriculum to which the children were exposed. Achievement, as assessed by the test used, is a function of specific content knowledge, and it is likely that the children in all four groups were presented a similar academic curriculum. Thus, the content knowledge of all four groups would have been similar. The findings with regard to social functioning are straight-forward. There is no reason to believe that children in the music lessons group should have enhanced social functioning as these skills played no role in the music lessons. In fact, from the point of view of the research design, it might be viewed positively that these children did not have increases in measured social functioning, because it shows that there was no positive bias held by parents (who provided the social functioning ratings) about the effects of musical lessons. Put another way, if there was no reason to believe the keyboard and singing lessons should enhance social functioning, and it was shown that these experiences did not have this effect, this outcome serves as a check on the rigor and validity of the measurement scheme used.
A recent study that is similar to that of Schellenberg but with a longer duration of music instruction also did not produce measurable effects on academic achievement. Costa-Giomi conducted a three year study of the effects of piano instruction on 117 fourth-grade students. The study recruited children who had never participated in formal music instruction, did not have a piano at home, and had an annual family income below $40,000. Sixty-three of the students received individual piano lessons weekly for three years, and were given a piano for their use at no cost to their families. Children in the control group did not receive piano lessons. Children were assessed on self-esteem, academic achievement, cognitive abilities, musical abilities, and motor proficiency at the beginning of the project and after the second and third year of the study. Results indicated that piano instruction had a positive effect on self-esteem and school music grades. There was no effect on standardized test performance or report card grades.
In summary, recent research on the effects of music education on academic achievement has been more sophisticated and scientifically rigorous. This work has generally found small, but potentially important, effects on cognitive ability but no effects on academic performance whether measured via standardized tests or school grades.
Do Specific Musical Abilities Relate to Academic Performance?
Some researchers have not focused on the effects of musical training, but have been interested in how musical ability, as measured at any one time in development, might relate to academic performance. It is assumed that the musical ability is a combination of innate ability and experience, so musical training could be implicated. I have chosen two studies to summarize which seem to have implications for the questions addressed in this paper.
Anvari et al. (2002) studied the relation between early reading skills and musical skill (pitch and rhythm discrimination) among a large sample of English-speaking 4- and 5-year-olds. Reading skills were studied in depth with assessments made of phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and auditory memory. Mathematics skills were also assessed. The most interesting finding was that for 5-year-olds, performance on musical pitch tasks (but not rhythm tasks) predicted unique variance in reading abilities. This effect was present even when auditory memory and phonemic awareness (ability to identify the sound components of a word) were statistically controlled. The authors interpret these findings to be consistent with the hypothesis that there is a shared learning process for linguistic and musical sound categories. The learning of sound categories is believed to enhance understanding of speech sounds and their representation in symbols (i.e., letters and words).
Slevc and Miyake (2006) studied how musical ability affected the learning of a second language by adults. The subjects were 50 Japanese adults learning English in the United States. Musical ability was assessed through examining pitch pattern perception via detection of an altered note in a chord or short melody, as well as assessing accuracy in singing back short melodies. Language tests examined receptive and productive phonology, syntax, and lexical knowledge. Musical ability was found to predict unique variance in learning a second language. Specifically, pitch recognition was predictive of receptive and productive phonology, that aspect of language learning that is most directly related to sound categorization.
These two studies are presented as examples of sophisticated research aimed at teasing out the connections between specific skills in one art form (pitch recognition in music), and specific aspects of one set of academic skills (phonological skills in reading and language learning). This type of research represents an important step forward in determine some of the potential mechanisms that might operate in the connection between music education and academic performance.
Some Studies of Brain Activity and Music that Have Implications for Positive Effects of Music Education
Issues of Brain Plasticity: One of the basic questions in neuroscience is how the central nervous system (CNS) adapts to persistent environmental stimulation. Prolonged musical training is one example of a prolonged environmental experience, specifically auditory experience coupled with motor and other components (for the performer). Margulis et al., (2007) studied the responses of the CNS of two groups of musicians with extensive experience with different instruments (the violin and the flute). fMRI technique was used which studies cerebral hemodynamic (blood flow) responses to particular stimuli. In this case both groups listened to Bach Partitas, a body of music that was studied by both instrumental groups. They found that the two groups demonstrated extensive differences in the ‘cerebral networks of expertise’ (different brain regions showed activity on the fMRI) that were related to musical syntax (Brochas area 44), timbre (auditory association cortex), and sound-motor interactions (precentral gyrus) when listening to music played on the instrument of expertise, compared to listening to the other instrument. The importance of studies of this type is that they show that prolonged musical experience has a direct effect on brain functioning. Further, they demonstrate that while there are general learned responses to music training there are also elements that are highly specific to the type of training that is received.
Another type of research that demonstrates the plastic nature of the CNS as it relates to musical content comes from the study of persons who grow up listening to a pitch based language system. In such languages (e.g., Mandarin Chinese) pitch is used to signal word meaning. Studies of auditory brainstem activity of native speakers of Mandarin versus native speakers of English reveal that the Mandarin speakers have an enhanced response to linguistic pitch patterns (Krishnan et al., 2005). The relation of this research to musical training is made clear by Wong et al., (2007) who found that musicians had stronger brainstem responses to verbal pitch than non-musicians.
Perhaps the most often cited study of the direct effect of musical instruction on the brain development of young children was conducted by Fujioka, Ross, Kakigi, Pantev and Trainor (2006). These researchers studied the brains of 12 children between the ages of 4 and 6 years of age. The children were tested on four occasions over the course of a year. During this year half of the subjects received Suzuki violin lessons. Neurological responses of the CNS were tested by magnetoencephalography (MEG). MEG is a non-invasive brain scanning technology that measures the magnetic fields outside the head associated with the electrical fields generated when groups of neurons fire in synchrony. Auditory evoked potential methods were used in which a short sound made by a violin or white noise was presented to the subjects via headphones. The auditory evoked potential method measures the peaks and valleys of brain waves that are elicited by a short burst of sound. These peaks and valleys occur very quickly in the CNS and are measured in milliseconds (thousands of a second). The neurological processes underlying the research were based on the notion that repeated practice optimizes neuronal circuits by changing the number of neurons involved, the timing of the synchronization and the number and strength of the excitatory and inhibitory synaptic connections. In other words, with practice a larger group of neurons fire in synchrony when a tone is presented. The speed of the brain response is, for the most part, far too fast to be conscious.
Analysis of the MEG responses indicated that across both groups of children, larger responses were seen to the violin tones than to the white noise. This indicates that more cortical resources were put toward processing the meaningful sound than the non-meaningful sound. Also, the time it took the brain to respond to the sound decreased over the year. This means that with one year of maturation, the neurons were conducting impulses faster for all these children. With regard to the effects of practice, the Suzuki children showed a greater change over the year in response to violin tones at the negative (a downward deflection of the conduction wave) 250 millisecond component of the MEG response. This indicates that these children paid closer attention to these violin sounds and had improved sound discrimination. In addition to these training effects, tests of musical skills showed that there was greater improvement over the year in melody, harmony and rhythm processing in the children who had Suzuki training than in controls. Also, there was a general improvement in memory capacity as tested on a standardized memory test.
Hyde et al. (2009) have demonstrated that the actual structures of the brains of about children were changed in response to musical education. They studied two groups of children (mean age of 6 years) from the Boston area public schools who had no prior formal musical training. The experimental group received half-hour private keyboard lessons for 15 months. The control group participated in a drum and singing group for the same period of time. All subjects were assessed on MRI for the size and structure of various brain structures measured by the number of pixels in the scan that were within the limits of the structure. Scans were done prior to and after training. Students who received keyboard training demonstrated greater relative size of those structures that controlled motor movement and auditory perception. Interestingly, some changes were also observed in areas outside the auditory and movement regions.
These studies clearly indicate that the developing brains of children respond to, and are changed by, tonal experiences. In general, they underscore the notion of neural plasticity and the impact of musical training on the brain. This is a necessary step in determining if musical training has an effect on various aspects of child development and, more specifically, on academic learning. The best of these studies indicate that musical training changes the function and size of developing brain structures. Also, one study indicates that musical training using the Suzuki method had a positive effect on memory. This is reasonable as memory is a significant component of Suzuki training.
The Noise-Exclusion Hypothesis: Several studies have found that children with musical training have better verbal abilities (measured in various ways) than children who have not received this training. Although some of these studies can be criticized on several grounds that have been described above, the finding is persistent enough to demand more exploration. One of the most promising avenues of research in this regard involves basic studies of brain activity in noise-exclusion.
One specific process of the brain is to sift through all the information that is perceived at any one time (auditory, visual, and tactile) to discriminate between important information and noise. Auditory sifting is an important process in speech recognition as human speech contains a combination of noise and informative content. Further, the ability to hear and process the information in speech in a noisy environment (like the typical classroom or working environment) places special stress on this skill. It has been demonstrated that children with a variety of language-based learning disabilities have poor ability to exclude noise during sensory or cognitive processing (Sperling, Lu, Manis, & Seidenberg, 2005). On the other hand, several researchers have shown that trained musicians have enhanced noise-exclusion ability (e.g.Parbery-Clark, Skoe, & Kraus, 2009).
Chandrasekaran and Kraus (2010) argue that perceiving sensory information in background noise is a complex task involving many neurological processes. Among these are extraction of key features of the signal while suppressing irrelevant details, the ability to temporarily store the important information while ignoring noise, the ability to process a single source (like a speaker) in the midst of numerous other sources, and the ability to use linguistic context to fill in the details lost in noise. There is good reason to believe that all these processes can be enhanced through training. Chandrasekaran and Kraus (2010) put forth the hypothesis that the effects shown for enhanced verbal ability and verbal processing of speech by those with musical training in part is based on the ability to process pitch-based and timing-based information in speech.
From a neurological point of view, the auditory system is composed of a number of structures that are connected via bottom-up (lower-level perception of a signal to higher-level cognitive processing of the signal) and top-down (enhancing perception through cognitive meaning) neural tracts. Thus, there is a feedback loop in which signal is separated from noise by higher-level cognitive processes then these higher-level processes send down the neural connection information that increases the selectivity of the basic perceptual processes.
This model of noise suppression and the effect of musical training on this ability has been supported by a number of studies. Relative to nonmusicians, musicians demonstrate more robust encoding of timing and pitch features in speech at the level of the brainstem (Wong et al., 2007). The brainstem processes and selects perceptions very quickly and is considered to be one of the most basic central nervous system systems for processing perception. Further, Musacchia, et al., (2007) and others have shown that musicians demonstrate superior brainstem representation of timing and harmonic structure in speech. In addition, musicians have been found to have a superior propensity to use pitch during language learning tasks, relative to non-musicians (Wong & Perrachione, 2007).
These studies were predominantly done on college students or adult groups of musicians or non-musicians. However, several studies of the effects of musical training on children have shown significant effects on language ability that seem logically connected to this basic science work on noise exclusion. For example, Forgeard et al. (2008) showed that children who received instrumental music training not only demonstrated enhanced skills related to music, but also showed enhanced vocabulary relative to untrained controls. Also, musical discrimination skills significantly predicted phonological and reading skills.
Understanding the Emotional Content of Speech: Several studies have demonstrated that musicians exhibit enhanced perception of emotion in speech (see Strait et al., 2009 for a brief review). Strait et al. studied the brainstem responses of musicians and non-musicians to affectively loaded human vocal sounds. Musicians demonstrated enhanced magnitude responses to the most complex portion of the stimuli and decreased magnitude to the more periodic, less complex portion of the stimuli. The authors suggest that these findings support the hypothesis that expertise in music engenders both enhancement and efficiency of sub-cortical neural responses that are connected with the communication of emotional states. The importance of this line of research is that it raises the possibility that musical training may enhance communication of emotion. The interpretation of the emotional content of speech is an essential developmental skill that impacts the basic understanding of all types of human communication. The importance of this skill is clearly seen in autistic children who have a reduced capacity for understanding of this type of communication.
From this cursory review of the sizeable literature on arts education and cognitive development, several points about the body of knowledge seem clear.
1. There has been a good deal of exaggeration about the evidence in support of arts programs in general, and of musical education specifically, on the cognitive development of children. Understandably, such claims have been made by policy experts and by other advocates for the arts who are not experts on the research foundations of the claims. However, such exaggeration undermines advocacy efforts and ultimately weakens public support for the arts. Some of the strongest researchers in the field have published extensively on the weaknesses of the extant research (Eisner, 1998; Schellenberg, 2006; Winner & Cooper, 2000). However, a nuanced view of the research base is still not appreciated by practitioners and the general population. This problem, of course, is not unique to this research field. Over simplified, sound-bite driven mass media, and many other factors have contributed to the same problem in many areas of educational research, and in many areas of medicine and science.
2. Global studies of the effects of musical experience on cognitive development are most likely to find no effect, or if a positive effect is found, it is likely to be so small as to be of limited practical significance (Schellenberg, 2006). This does not mean that musical experiences may not have a practically significant and positive effect on cognitive development. The weakness of the approach is in studying programs that train many different skills. At this point in the development of research on the effects of music education, we do not know which of these different skills are most likely to transfer to other areas of cognitive performance such as reading and mathematics. An additional problem is that the outcome measures used historically have often been very broad. Scholastic aptitude and achievement measures are by design general measures that are known to be the result of highly complex processes. In such cases, the potential positive effects of any intervention, including musical experience, become muted by the variety of other outcomes that do not respond to the training under investigation. Much more limited questions should eventually produce more meaningful results. Is increased ability pitch recognition helpful in verbal decoding? Is increased ability rhythmic understanding related to pattern recognition in other areas? Is training in the conventional emotional meaning of pitch and rhythm related to emotional understanding of speech utterances? This kind of question which has begun to be addressed has a much better chance of producing positive outcomes in the understanding of the effects of musical training. Similar points could be made, of course, about any other type of arts training.
3. Basic brain-science research has produced several promising findings suggesting positive effects of music education. The work in support of the noise-exclusion hypothesis is a good case-in-point. The research is hypothesis driven, and attempts to relate a specific type of musical training to a specific cognitive function. Further, this function could have broad influence on a range of cognitive tasks. There is also increasingly clear data supporting direct effects on the function and structure of some brain regions in response to musical training.
Despite the neuroscience sophistication of much of this new research, the reader should be aware that some of these studies suffer from the same problems that were present in the studies of more general educational outcomes. The researchers often are not studying randomly assigned groups or groups for which meaningful statistical control of confounding variables are available. The study of differences between expert musicians and non-musicians, for example, no matter how sophisticated the measurement of brain functions (e.g., EEG, fMRI, PET scans), cannot address the issue of whether a third uncontrolled variable (e.g., initial differences between the groups in pitch discrimination or IQ) may account for the difference in brain function. More recent studies by Fujioka et al. (2006) and Hyde et al. (2009), for example, have done a better job in controlling these factors.
4. Despite the limitations of the current research on the effects of music education (and other arts education), there are good theoretical reasons for believing that development of skills with sound, rhythm, musical structure, and self-expression will have a positive effect on the cognitive development of the child. One of the clear messages from current brain research is that the brain is plastic; it changes based on experience. Further, the brain is a system designed for associating experiences. In part, this is accomplished through forming vast systems of interconnections between different brain systems. The neurological record of an experience does not reside in a cellular column that is isolated from all other cellular columns. All experiences that are meaningful (that have been registered in long-term memory) are connected to other parts of the neurological system. This can be vividly seen in the case of returning veterans who have experienced trauma; they transfer this sense of danger to their civilian life, and thus a loud noise experienced while walking through a super-market may elicit a set of responses learned in the battle field.
This line of reasoning would indicate that if it were possible to limit the experiences of the young child to those attained through reading skill, for example, despite the richness of this source, the resulting child would be less adaptable (have a less able brain) than would occur if the child had a broader range of experiences. These broader activities might include social activities, experience in interacting with animals, athletic activities, activities associated with the making of objects, problem solving activities, and activities that provide explicit experience with sound (e.g., musical training) or sight (e.g., arts education focused on the graphic arts or photography). All such activities provide grist for the neurological mill that is the CNS. The argument is not that musical education (e.g., pitch recognition) has a particularly seminal place in brain development. Rather, the argument is that the child is enhanced by a variety of experiences. This variety provides the raw material to the nervous system that facilitates the development of the interconnected, integrated neurological system.
However, a musical education does not just include experiences with pitch, timbre, and rhythm. To learn to play a musical instrument or to sing requires that the participant learn a rich set of skills. Many of these are described as meta-cognitive skills. These include the ability to focus attention, to organize the material to be learned, and perseverance in the face of failure (to mention only a few) to mention only three of the most relevant skills. These are skills that have a very broad application to other areas of human performance. Also, good musical training often is dependent on developing a working relationship with a teaching adult and, for group based music, requires the ability to work with others in a cooperative endeavor. This set of social skills has very broad application to human activities across the life span. Further, musical training often enhances motor skills and the training of independence of motor groups. Organists, for example, learn to plan and carryout motor activity with the left hand, the right hand, the left foot and the right foot, each doing different tasks simultaneously. This kind of training may not enhance reading skills of children, but may greatly facilitate keyboarding skills and other motor activities.
One other area of experience seems important to emphasize. Musical education involves practice in performance. Musical performance is a model for many kinds of circumstances in which an individual shares their skills and knowledge with an audience. Learning to perform involves many skills. For example, performance invariably involves anxiety because one wishes to demonstrate the best of their abilities. Learning to expect this anxiety, to develop skills in managing anxiety, and to perform despite anxiety are all necessary life skills. Optimal performance also involves learning how to engage in long-term and short-term preparation and several other skills like those involved in communication of emotion.
A contemporary model of optimal development must take into account the associative nature of the neurological system. Experiences in one area are often associated with experiences in another. This line of thought leads me to believe that a sound musical education has many enhancing aspects for the developing brain of the child. Most of these facilitative aspects can only be guessed at currently, because researchers have found it difficult to design experiments that isolate these effects. However, it is unlikely that musical training enhances content that is assessed on most academic examinations (e.g. vocabulary). It is much more likely that the most transferable skills that are learned in musical training are meta-cognitive skills (e.g., attention, perseverance) and social skills (e.g., skills involved in performing before an audience).
Finally, it seems important to state that music education can, and should be defended, based on the importance of music in contemporary life. Most human beings are listening to music in their cars, in public buildings, and on handheld devices everyday of their lives. In addition, attendance at musical events (e.g., concerts, festivals) is a part of the entertainment life of most humans on the planet. Understanding all this music, putting it in context and being able to participate in making music is a worthy goal for an education program. One should not have to defend music education on the grounds that it has a transfer effect for mathematic education. The primary defense of music education should be that it aids in the development of skills and understanding of one of the most ubiquitous of human endeavors.
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