The ability to create and respond to music is said to be one of the key evolutionary developments made by humankind. Humans found meaning in music long before finding meaning in words. This is the reason why understanding the human brain’s connection with music has been an area of interest for scientists for centuries now. Many studies have shown that getting musical training can hone many cognitive skills and functions.
A study published in 2009 in the Journal of Neuroscience indicated that just 15 months of musical training in early childhood can improve musically relevant motor and auditory skills thanks to training-induced structural changes in the brain. Another study in BJPsych International in 2017 shows that the way music stimulates the brain can be used as a non-invasive psychotherapeutic method to treat neurological disorders like autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. This study also suggests that music therapy can aid children with epilepsy.
Music for attention and memory
A new study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience has found new evidence to support this beneficial link between music and the human brain. The Chile-based researchers behind this study have discovered that children who are trained in music, especially those who learn to play an instrument, not only have better memory and concentration levels but also the parts of their brain related to attention, focus control and auditory encoding are more activated. This brain activation enables them to be better readers, have higher resilience towards adversity, greater creativity and therefore have a better quality of life.
The study included 40 healthy, right-handed, Spanish-speaking children aged 10-13 years, all of whom had normal hearing and normal or correct-to-normal (meaning they wear glasses or contact lenses) vision. Twenty of these children were musically trained members of youth orchestras in Santiago, Chile, with at least two years of instrumental training. These participants practiced their instruments (ranging from flutes and clarinets to violins and cellos) at least two hours per week, had orchestra rehearsals at least once a week and had started their musical training around the age of nine years.
The other 20 participants of the study were recruited from Santiago’s public schools and had no musical training beyond what was given in their school. Unlike the musically-trained group, these children were unable to read or write musical scores. The attention and working memory of all participants was tested by the researchers using something called a “bimodal (auditory/visual) attention and working memory (WM) task”. During these tasks, the participants were exposed to visual and auditory stimuli and their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The study found that there were two mechanisms that contributed to the marked improvements in attention and memory of the musically trained participants. First, these children had a higher activation level of the fronto-parietal control network of the brain which is linked to attention, focus and concentration mechanisms. Second, these kids also had higher activation of two other parts of the brain – left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and left supramarginal gyrus (SMG) – which are linked with the phonological loop. The phonological loop is the component of working memory that keeps auditory information active in the consciousness, thereby helping memory recall and problem-solving abilities.
The study found that while these parts of the brain were highly activated among musically-trained participants, the same did not occur with the other children. The researchers, therefore, recommend musical training for all children to improve cognitive abilities like attention and memory. Moreover, the researchers insist that such training would not only help children develop their minds better but also bring them joy by being able to learn the universal language of music.
For more information, read our article on Tips to improve brain power.
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