Playing music involves many different tasks in one's brain—seeing and understanding notes on a page, listening to your own melody as well as the others around you, and manipulating the instrument to make the sound, not to mention how music can make you feel. The brain has complex visual, auditory, motor, cognitive, and emotional tasks that it does simultaneously to make music.
Music and Changes in Brain Structure
Several studies have demonstrated anatomic differences in brains comparing musicians and nonmusicians, in both children and adults.1,2 Not surprisingly, these studies show changes in auditory and sensorimotor areas. Interestingly, there have also been studies showing anatomic differences in other areas of the brain, including inferior frontal regions, multimodal integration regions, and the corpus collosum.3,4 This fascinating finding suggests that music-making changes the structure of your brain in many ways, not just in those areas directly involved in listening to the sounds or pressing the keys.
The studies on anatomic differences in brain structure are largely cross-sectional, and although interesting, they do not answer the question of whether preexisting biological traits or intense music training result in these anatomic differences. Longitudinal, case-controlled studies are emerging in the literature. One study from Schlaug et al.5 showed increased grey matter density in school-age children receiving 15 months of musical training, compared to children who did not receive musical training. Another study from Habibi et al.3 found that compared to children in a sports program and those not involved in any structured program, children in a music program had measurable differences in their macro and microscopic brain structure based on magnetic resonance imaging scans at the beginning and the end of the study period. Specifically, they had different rates of maturation in the cortical thickness in their temporal lobe, and a higher fractional anisotropy in parts of their corpus collosum. This was a longitudinal study over 2 years beginning when the children were age 6 years. The children played string instruments and were engaged in ensemble practice and performances for about 6 to 7 hours per week.3,4 It is fascinating to imagine the ways that the brain structure changes with a relatively simple intervention like musical instruction, practice, and performance.
Music and Changes in Brain Function
Besides the structural changes that are associated with musical endeavors, there has been interest in how music is associated with functional changes in children. Specifically, researchers have studied the association of music and rhythm with early literacy to try to find new ways of helping children learn to read. One study by Ozernov-Palchik et al.6 showed a relationship among rhythm perception, phonological awareness, and letter-sound knowledge (sometimes called “sounding out the letters”), which is very important in learning to read. Other studies have shown positive impacts of rhythmic training on phonological processing and reading in both children with and without reading difficulties.6
Another area of interest is music and speech. A randomized study7 of 9-month-old babies found that those who participated in a music program of 12 sessions had larger mismatch response when confronted with temporal structure violations in music and speech, compared to infants that participated in nonmusical activities. Therefore the musical intervention was associated with an enhanced ability to process music and speech.7 Another study compared infants in an active music-making class and infants in a social play class with music in the background, and found that parents reported more preverbal communicative gestures in the active music-making group.8 Another intervention study compared school-age children in groups doing structured music or painting activities, and found positive effects on neural speech processing and reading skills in the music group only.9
Besides literacy and speech, there is interest in music as it relates to other subjects, specifically mathematics. A study by Ribeiro and Santos10 looked at noninstrumental musical training in a group of 8-year-old children with low mathematic achievement in Brazil. Students participated in 14 classes including both melodic and rhythmic activities. After the musical intervention, those with lower mathematic achievement scores had an increased score in number production (reading, writing, and counting numbers) when compared to normative data.10
These studies support the notion that musical training may influence several areas of brain development that are critical to a child's function, including speech, literacy, and math. Importantly, these studies are not uniform in their methodologies, with some relying on parental report, some being randomized, and some with control groups and others without. The control groups also varied, and some had structured nonmusical activity and others had no structured activity at all. Also, musical interventions vary from study to study. Although these studies differ in their methods, this research is useful in the growing body of evidence supporting the link between musical interventions and changes in brain function.
Music and Children at Risk for Development Delay
Informal musical exposure has also been under investigation in children at risk for dyslexia and infants born prematurely.11 Both groups are at risk for developmental delays. One study11 reported preliminary findings from a longitudinal study of young infants with a family history of dyslexia and found that musical activities done at home may promote the child's brain development. This study investigates a structured but passive music listening program as well as the role of more informal musical activities at home. Although they did not find a correlation between passive music listening and language development, they did see that the amount of informal musical activities at home, such as singing, dancing, drumming rhythms, or playing instruments, was positively correlated with precommunicative development scores.11 This same study also reported preliminary findings in preterm infants that were randomized to a singing group or standard care group. The singing group's parents were encouraged to sing or hum songs and melodies of their own choosing. The infants underwent auditory testing with native language speech sound changes as well as neuropsychological testing when they reached toddler age. Preliminary findings show that the preterm infants in the singing group had neural responses to language that were similar to healthy, full-term infants. Additionally, researchers found that informal musical activities at home were positively correlated with language outcomes in young children.11
The relationship between music and brain development is an active area of research. There are studies showing correlations between music exposure and changes in brain anatomy as well as critical functions such as speech and language development, literacy, and mathematic skills. Studies such as these are difficult to do in a randomized and longitudinal fashion, and each study has a different musical intervention. Despite this variation in research methodologies, it seems that there is active interest in this area, and that many scientists are finding positive associations with music and development. Taken together, it seems that these studies support that early musical exposure and participation is likely beneficial to a child's development. A range of activities, from a parent singing a nursery rhyme to a child, to an infant swaying to a waltz, to a 6-year-old learning violin in music class—all likely have a positive effect on the child's brain structure and function. It seems apparent, therefore, that pediatricians should support families in pursuing early musical endeavors, including participation in school music programs.
- Gaser C, Schlaug G. Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. J Neurosci. 2003;23(27):9240–9245. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.23-27-09240.2003 [CrossRef]
- Herholz SC, Zatorre RJ. Musical training as a framework for brain plasticity: behavior, function, and structure. Neuron.2012;76(3):486–502. doi:. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.011 [CrossRef]
- Habibi A, Damasio A, Ilari B, et al. Childhood music training induces change in micro and macroscopic brain structure: results from a longitudinal study [published online ahead of print November 8, 2017]. Cereb Cortex. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhx286 [CrossRef].
- Habibi A, Damasio A, Ilari B, Elliott Sachs M, Damasio H. Music training and child development: a review of recent findings from a longitudinal study [published online ahead of print March 6, 2018]. Ann N Y Acad Sci. doi:10.1111/nyas.13606 [CrossRef].
- Schlaug G, Norton A, Overy K, Winner E. Effects of music training on the child's brain and cognitive development. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005;1060:219–230. doi:. doi:10.1196/annals.1360.015 [CrossRef]
- Ozernov-Palchik O, Wolf M, Patel AD. Relationships between early literacy and nonlinguistic rhythmic processes in kindergarteners. J Exp Child Psychol. 2018;167:354–368. doi:. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2017.11.009 [CrossRef]
- Zhao TC, Kuhl PK. Musical intervention enhances infants' neural processing of temporal structure in music and speech. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016;113(19):5212–5217. doi:. doi:10.1073/pnas.1603984113 [CrossRef]
- Gerry D, Unrau A, Trainor LJ. Active music classes in infancy enhance musical, communicative and social development. Dev Sci. 2012;15(3):398–407. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2012.01142.x [CrossRef]
- Moreno S, Marques C, Santos A, Santos M, Castro SL, Besson M. Musical training influences linguistic abilities in 8-year-old children: more evidence for brain plasticity. Cereb Cortex. 2009;19(3):712–723. doi:. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhn120 [CrossRef]
- Ribeiro FS, Santos FH. Enhancement of numeric cognition in children with low achievement in mathematic after a non-instrumental musical training. Res Dev Disabil. 2017;62:26–39. doi:. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2016.11.008 [CrossRef]
- Virtala P, Partanen E. Can very early music interventions promote at-risk infants' development [published online ahead of print April 30, 2018]?Ann N Y Acad Sci. doi:10.1111/nyas.13646 [CrossRef].