If music be the stuff of brains, play on...

Ludwig van Beethoven is credited with saying, "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." And while some may argue the point, there's certainly been a good bit of evidence suggesting that learning to read and play music is good for intelligence, academic performance and critical thinking skills. 


In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, E. Glenn Schellenberg, a researcher at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, found that 6-year-olds given voice and piano lessons had higher IQs as well as better academic performance.  What's more, Schellenberg found that the effect got bigger the longer that the children received the lessons--there was a dose-response association

There have been several hypotheses why music may have such an effect.  It may be a chicken-and-egg-thing where children with higher IQs can handle the rigors and challenges of music on top of school and other activities.  It may be that children who receive music lessons have parents who are strongly invested in their academic performance.  Or, it was postulated, that learning to read music was somehow making changes to the brain that helped foster learning and academic success. 

New research suggests the third hypothesis may not be so far off the mark. 

Researchers at Concordia and McGill Universities have found that musical training before the age of 7 has a significant effect on brain development, strengthening connections in the motor regions of the brain. The results were published in the Journal of Neuroscience

The researchers scanned the brains of 36 adult musicians while they performed a movement task.  Half the group had started their training before the age of seven--but both groups were matched for number of years of training and experience. They also scanned a control group with no musical experience. 

The researchers found that musicians who started training before the age of 7 showed more accurate timing on the movement task, even after practice.  Their brain scans showed enhanced connections in the corpus callosum, the nerve fibers that connect the left and right motor regions of the brain.  The younger a musician was when they started their training, the greater the connectivity.  Interestingly, the musicians who started later did not show these strengthened connections.  Their brains more closely resembled those with no musical experience.

The results have led the researchers to argue that there is a critical period between 6 and 8 years of age where musical training can really make a difference.  That is, when children are trained in music within that timeframe, it results in long-term changes to brain development in areas involved with planning and executing movements. 

What do you think?  How important is music to development?  To later academic and professional success?  And how early should kids be learning to read and play music?

Photo credit:  Naira Kalantaryan/Shutterstock.com

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