Music, the universal language of mood, emotion and desire, connects with us through a wide variety of neural systems.
We now know from controlled treatment/outcome studies that listening to and playing music is a potent treatment for mental health issues. 400 published scientific papers have proven the old adage that “music is medicine.” In fact, research demonstrates that adding music therapy to treatment improves symptoms and social functioning among schizophrenics. Further, music therapy has demonstrated efficacy as an independent treatment for reducing depression, anxiety and chronic pain.
Importantly, music education also appears to accelerate brain development in young children, particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills, according to initial results of a five-year study by USC neuroscientists.
The Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) at USC began the five-year study in 2012, in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), to examine the impact of music instruction on children’s social, emotional and cognitive development.
Their initial study results show that music instruction speeds up the maturation of the auditory pathway in the brain and increases its efficiency. The study, published recently in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, provide evidence of the benefits of music education at a time when many schools around the United States and other countries have either reduced or eliminated music and arts programs.
“We are broadly interested in the impact of music training on cognitive, socio-emotional and brain development of children,” said Assal Habibi, the study’s lead author and a senior research associate at the BCI in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “These results reflect that children with music training, compared with the two other comparison groups, were more accurate in processing sound.”
For this study, the neuroscientists monitored brain development and behavior in a group of 37 children from underprivileged neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Thirteen of the children, at 6 or 7 years old, began to receive music instruction through the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles program at HOLA. The community music training program was inspired by the El Sistema method, one that LA Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel had been in when he was growing up in Venezuela.
Learning to Play
The children learned to play instruments, such as the violin, in ensembles and groups, and they practiced up to seven hours a week. The researchers compared the budding musicians with peers in two other groups: 11 children in a community soccer program, and 13 children who are not involved in any specific after-school programs. Several tools were used to monitor changes in the children as they grew: MRI to monitor changes through brain scans, EEG to track electrical activity in the brains, behavioral testing, and other such techniques.
Within two years of the study, the neuroscientists found the auditory systems of children in the music program were maturing faster than in the other children. This enhanced maturity reflects an increase in neuroplasticity, a physiological change in the brain in response to its environment — in this case, exposure to music and music instruction.
“The auditory system is stimulated by music,” Habibi said. “This system is also engaged in general sound processing that is fundamental to language development, reading skills and successful communication.”
It is believed the fine-tuning of the children’s auditory pathways could accelerate their development of language and reading, as well as other abilities — a potential effect which this group of neuroscientists is continuing to study.
Ear to Brain
The auditory system connects our ear to our brain to process sound. When we hear something, our ears receive it in the form of vibrations that it converts into a neural signal. That signal is then sent to the brainstem, up to the thalamus at the center of the brain, and outward to its final destination, the primary auditory cortex, located near the sides of the brain.
The progress of a child’s developing auditory pathway can be measured by EEG, which tracks electrical signals, specifically those referred to as “auditory evoked potentials.” In this study, the scientists focused on an evoked potential called P1. They tracked amplitude — the number of neurons firing — as well as latency — the speed that the signal is transmitted. Both measures infer the maturity of the brain’s auditory pathways.
As children develop, both amplitude and the latency of P1 tend to decrease. This means that that they are becoming more efficient at processing sound.
At the beginning of the study and again two years later, the children completed a task measuring their abilities to distinguish tone. As the EEG was recording their electrical signals, they listened to violin tones, piano tones and single-frequency (pure) tones played. The children also completed a tonal and rhythm discrimination task in which they were asked to identify similar and different melodies. Twice, they heard 24 melodies in randomized order and were asked to identify which ones differed in tone and rhythm, and which were the same in tone and rhythm.
Children who were in the youth orchestra program were more accurate at detecting pitch changes in the melodies than the other two groups. All three groups were able to identify easily when the melodies were the same. However, children with music training had smaller P1 potential amplitude compared to the other children, indicating a faster rate of maturation.
“We observed a decrease in P1 amplitude and latency that was the largest in the music group compared to age-matched control groups after two years of training,” the scientists wrote. “In addition, focusing just on the (second) year data, the music group showed the smallest amplitude of P1 compared to both the control and sports group, in combination with the accelerated development of the N1 component.”
The Biology of Music
“Undeniably, there is a biology of music,” according to Harvard University Medical School neurobiologist Mark Jude Tramo. He sees it as beyond question that there is specialization within the brain for the processing of music. Music is a biological part of life as surely as it is an aesthetic part.
Studies as far back as 1990 found that the brain responds to harmony. Using a PET scanner to monitor changes in neural activity, neuroscientists at McGill University discovered that the part of the brain activated by music is dependent on whether or not the music is pleasant or dissonant.
The brain grows in response to musical training in the way a muscle responds to exercise. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston discovered that male musicians have larger brains than men who have not had extensive musical training. The cerebellums, that part of the brain containing 70 percent of the total brain’s neurons, were 5 percent larger in expert male musicians.
Researchers have also found evidence of the power of music to affect neural activity no matter where they looked in the brain, from primitive regions found in animals to more recently evolved areas thought to be strictly human such as the frontal lobes. Harmony, melody and rhythm invoke distinct patterns of brain activity.