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This Is Your Brain On Music

Researchers getting in tune with music's effects

Listening to music can have all sorts of effects on the mind and emotions. Music can pick you up when you’re feeling down, pump you up at the gym, and set the mood in the bedroom. While it’s clear listening to different types of music may have different effects on your mindset, could listening to certain music actually make you smarter? The simple answer is: not exactly.

A myth from the early 90s is that listening to classical music—specifically Mozart—will make you smarter. The “Mozart Effect,” became popularized after a 1993 study published in Nature found that college students scored higher on an IQ test immediately after listening to Mozart’s music. The study became so popular that the then Governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, proposed a budget to provide every child born in Georgia with a classical music CD. The problem is that future studies have not been able to establish that listening to music has any real effects on IQ. That is not to say that the 1993 study was completely wrong, but instead of Mozart’s music boosting IQ, what it was really doing was sharpening focus.

“The interpretation of the effect went in the wrong direction,” said Dr. Peter Pfordresher, a psychology professor and Director of the Auditory Perception and Action Lab at the University of Buffalo. “What they found in the study was an “arousal effect,” if you’re physiologically aroused at a particular point in time, all of your attention gets focused better and you can do a bit better on cognitive tasks. The Mozart that they played in the study was a fast paced piano duet, and you get more of boost listing to that sort of music. If they played a slower, minor-key song, they would have seen less of an effect.” This is general to any type of music not just Mozart or classical. Differences in style, tempo, and tone will have different effects on the mind and emotions.

While listening to music seems to only have short-term effects on the mind, studies have found playing an instrument or receive music training may have a significant impact on brain development. A 2014 study done by researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine analyzed the brain scans of 232 children ages six to 18, specifically looking at brain development in children who play a musical instrument.

With brain scans collected by the National Institute of Health, the team of researchers looked at the Cortex (outside layer of the brain) thickness in each scan. “We found a couple of different things,” said Eileen Crehan a Clinical Research Assistant for the study. “Several of the cortices were actually thinner in those who had played music, which seems counterintuitive, but the thought is that there is all these neurons in your brain and the more mature you get the more of these connections between these neurons get specialized. The process of making those connections more specific happens faster in kids that had music training.” The researchers expected to find maturation in certain areas such as the motor cortex, which is in charge of motor skills such as hand-eye coordination. “When someone plays an instrument they’re moving their fingers so you would expect some development in that area. We also expected development in some other areas of the brain like the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of executive functioning, so things like organization, planning, and working memory,” said Crehan. What the team did not expect was finding maturation in areas of the brain that deal with emotions. “We found a lot of development in the orbital frontal and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which are in charge of things like emotional processing,” said Crehan.

While the research team was not expecting to see developmental changes in the emotional cortexes in the brain, the idea that music training can better our sense of emotion is not surprising to Pfordresher. “Probably the most significant effect music training seems to have on the brain is on recognizing emotional expression,” said Pfordresher. “The connection music has to emotion makes a lot of sense because that’s what you’re learning to do when playing music, you’re learning to think of particular kind of emotion that maybe you’re not experiencing, but trying to make people believe you’re experiencing it. Musicians are better at recognizing emotional expressions in music but also in speech, so in a certain way that might encourage empathy among people who play music.”

The University of Vermont research team hopes to build off the preliminary findings to judge if music training could be a legitimate treatment for a child with a mental disorder, such as ADHD, ADD or Anxiety disorders. “Our thinking is that if playing music can increase how your cortex gets developed, then is there some possibility that if you have a kid with a server problem with for example, attention, could recommending a thing like music training be an appropriate method to help improve that skill area?” said Crehan.

Developing better memory, organizational, planning, and motor skills, also being able to interpret emotions faster at a younger age can have a huge impact on a child’s success.

“These are all skills that underlie success and social interaction. If your working memory is improved it’s going to help you with everything,” said Crehan.

Hearing this might cause some parents to run to the local music shops and grab the first trumpet, guitar, or flute they see and sign their kids up for music class, but Dr. Pfordresher does not suggest that. “While the evidence is out there that music training will help a child develop in other areas of school and social interaction, I wouldn’t say that a parent should make a kid play music because they want them to do better in math class or to socialize more. While I think playing music would have beneficial effects for kids in other areas, if a kid doesn’t want to do music and isn’t into it, then I’m not sure it would,” said Pfordresher. “In my own perspective, the main effects you find from music are all within music, I think it’s a great thing on its own. Parents should want their kids to play music because it’s very distinct from a lot of other things they do in school. Playing music is a fun, great thing to do, if that’s what a child wants.”

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