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         Interesting research findings on early musical training

                                  and brain development

As scientists learn more about how the human brain develops, a number of myths about brain development have been debunked:-


1) The brain is completely developed at birth

Most of the brain’s cells are formed before birth. But the cells actually make most of their connections with other cells during the first few years of life. The brain’s structure continues to change as connections are refined based on experience. The connections that are used most will become stronger while those that are used least will eventually wither.


2) Brain development is completely genetic

Early experience is very important in brain development. The baby’s day to day experiences help decide how her brain cells will connect to each other. And if the baby does not have certain kinds of experiences, some areas of the brain will not make the necessary connections.


3) The brain grows steadily across childhood

The human brain actually develops in spurts. There are “prime times” when the brain is best equipped to learn certain skills. Young children learn music more easily than adults because their brains are still developing neural connections.


4) Enrichment is only for gifted and talented children

All young children and not only the gifted and talented can benefit from a music education. Educators are beginning to realise that musical skill is as important as literacy, numeracy and physical skills. All children need experience to develop a rich network of brain connections. Remember that children learn by doing. Give your child a chance to explore the world. Expose her to a variety of challenging experiences. Support her when she tries new things. Encourage her to be creative.


5) We can’t learn certain skills after childhood

There are certain prime times in development when learning is easier. The brain is especially efficient at learning during those prime times. But brain development and learning continues throughout the lifetime. Learning may be more difficult once the prime times are over, but it can still happen. Adults are able to learn foreign languages even if their learning is not as quick or easy as a young child’s. It is the same with music.

There is now a growing body of compelling scientific evidence about the enormous value of music education (which was previously under-rated and under-researched). Research from the emerging field of "neuromusic" by leading universities/institutes using latest 3D imaging technology (MRI, PET and tractography), brain atlases and connectome shows that music holistically stimulates the ENTIRE brain, affecting its hardwiring and ongoing development. Here are the results of some studies............

1) Source: Hodges, D. (1997). What neuromusical research has to offer music education. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, VII (2-4), 36-48, University of Northern Colorado 

Early and ongoing musical training affects the organization of the musical brain. Musically-trained subjects exhibit significantly higher EEG coherence values when compared to controls with limited musical training. An area of the left temporal lobe concerned with sound processing (the planum temporale) is larger in musically trained subjects than in untrained subjects; this is especially true for those who started studying music before the age of 7 or who have absolute pitch. Motor cortex areas controlling the fingers increased in response to piano exercises, both actual and imagined. Finally, string players have greater neuronal activity and a larger area in the right primary somatosensory cortex that controls the fingers of the left hand than non-string players. Again, these effects were greater for those who started playing at a young age.

2) Source: Sergent, J., Zuck, E., Tenial, S., and MacDonall, B. (1992). Distributed neural network underlying musical sight reading and keyboard performance. Science, 257, 106-109. 

Researchers at the University of Montreal used various brain imaging techniques to investigate brain activity during musical tasks and found that sight-reading musical scores and playing music both activate regions in all four of the cortex's lobes; and that parts of the cerebellum are also activated during those tasks. 

3) Source: "The Relationship between Rhythmic Competency and Academic Performance in First Grade Children," University of Central Florida, Debby Mitchell

Young children with developed rhythm skills perform better academically in early school years. Findings of a recent study showed that there was a significant difference in the academic achievement levels of students classified according to rhythmic competency. Students who were achieving at academic expectation scored high on all rhythmic tasks, while many of those who scored lower on the rhythmic test achieved below academic expectation.

4) Source: Nature May 23, 1996

Music training helps under-achievers. In Rhode Island, researchers studied eight public school first grade classes. Half of the classes became "test arts" groups, receiving ongoing music and visual arts training. In kindergarten, this group had lagged behind in scholastic performance. After seven months, the students were given a standardized test. The "test arts" group had caught up to their fellow students in reading and surpassed their classmates in math by 22 percent. In the second year of the project, the arts students widened this margin even further. Students were also evaluated on attitude and behavior. Classroom teachers noted improvement in these areas also.

5) Source: Neurological Research February 28, 1997

Research shows that piano students are better equipped to comprehend mathematical and scientific concepts. A group of preschoolers received private piano/keyboard lessons. A second group received private computer lessons. Those children who received piano/keyboard training performed 34 percent higher on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability than the other group. "Spatial-temporal" is basically proportional reasoning - ratios, fractions, proportions and thinking in space and time. This concept has long been considered a major obstacle in the teaching of elementary math and science.

6) Source: Neurological Research March, 1999

Music study can help kids understand advanced math concepts. A grasp of proportional math and fractions is a prerequisite to math at higher levels, and children who do not master these areas cannot understand more advanced math critical to high-tech fields. Music involves ratios, fractions, proportions and thinking in space and time. One group of second-grade students were given four months of piano keyboard training in addition to using newly designed math software. The group scored over 27 percent higher on proportional math and fractions tests than the children in the group who used only the math software.

7) Source: Costa-Giomi, E. (1998, April). The McGill Piano Project: Effects of three years of piano instruction on children's cognitive abilities, academic achievement, and self-esteem. Paper presented at the meeting of the Music Educators National Conference, Phoenix, Arizona, USA 

A McGill University study found that pattern recognition and mental representation scores improved significantly for students given piano instruction over a three-year period. They also found that self-esteem and musical skills measures improved for the students given piano instruction. 

8) Source: Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University.

Beneficial role of music in the early childhood development include:

a) Speech development

Simple songs and rhymes are great for building language skills. Because songs are sung more slowly than our natural speaking tempo, accentuate the natural rhythms of speech and contain repetition, they provide an ideal vehicle for practising language. Any old songs will do, but ones that describe actions that can be performed (think Hokey Pokey and Bend and Stretch) are handy for reinforcing the meaning of certain words, while songs that focus on teaching concepts such as colours (I Can Sing a Rainbow), sounds (Old MacDonald) and letters (alphabet songs) can be particularly educational.

b) Memory development

Children can easily remember the words to their favourite songs and love to be able to sing along. Music hooks on them and can help hone concentration and recall skills. Songs that have actions add an extra element to remember, while ones that offer repetition and listing (such as the There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly) are also good for building on this brain power.

c) Self esteem, confidence, creativity and learning

Song and dance can also do wonders for self-esteem and confidence, not to mention creativity – particularly if your little one is keen on coming up with her own lyrics and choreography! They offer other unique learning opportunities, too. For example, you might experience music and dance from other cultures with your tot, kick-starting her learning about the world, while other musical stylings can help teach practical and healthy skills such as eating right and washing your hands well (think Wiggles songs Fruit Salad and Wash Your Hands).

d) Social skills

Songs and rhymes help children to learn about interaction patterns such as waiting, active listening, taking turns and responding. In our digital age, where we are surrounded by sound a lot of the time, guiding children towards more focused listening with music provides them with an important life skill.

e) Physical benefits

Besides the brainy benefits, there are plenty of physical benefits which come from moving and grooving. Dancing about offers a whole-body workout improving fitness in terms of flexibility, agility and stamina. Dancing also provides an enjoyable way for children to develop gross motor skills such as balance, strength, coordination and proprioception. Songs with simple hand actions (such as Incy Wincy Spider, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Dr Knickerbocker and The Chicken Dance) are a great way to build the child’s fine motor skills and control of her body.

To conclude:

Music has the unique ability to go through alternative channels and connect different sections of the brain. Playing a musical instrument is a multi-sensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions—from finger tapping to dancing—and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. Musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight. 

The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult; beginning training during early childhood has the greatest impact. Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory (like RAM in computer technology) and more extensive connectivity within the brain. This results in the brain of a musician actually looking physically different from that of a non-musician. The late famous neuroscientist, Dr Oliver Sacks, wrote in Musicophilia, "Anatomists would be hard put to identify the brains of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician. But they could recognise the brain of a professional musician without a moment's hesitation."

There are so many studies that support the positive effects of learning to play a musical instrument with regards to brain development and cognitive improvement that I will just leave you with two more interesting read - one from "Examined Existence" website which attempts to answer the burning question of many parents "Can playing an instrument make you smarter?" and another entitled "Science just discovered something amazing about what childhood piano lessons did to you."