In response to a question from a music cognition student, I dug up this old post from "Sound a Mind," a blog on music cognition that Roger Grant and I maintained during graduate school. Original posting date: Sept. 21, 2006.

A new study, soon to be published by Brain claims to have found a neurological connection between musical training in childhood and brain development. This study tested a number of children, some of whom took the first year of Suzuki violin training, and some of whom did not. The researchers found differing development in the brains of the children, with the Suzuki students seeing increased development in neural resources for processing sound, particularly noticeable in response to sounds of violin timbre (they developed relatively normally in their processing of ‘noise’). The researchers also found greater increase of working memory digit span amongst the Suzuki students than amongst those who did not receive musical training.

While improvement in musical tasks is not surprising after 1 year of Suzuki music lessons, enhanced performance in digit span gives additional evidence for transfer effect between music and non-musical abilities such as literacy (Anvari et al., 2002), verbal memory (Ho et al., 2003), visuospatial processing (Costa-Giomi, 1999), mathematics (Cheek and Smith, 1999) and IQ (Schellenberg, 2004).

Their explanation of this phenomenon, however, should dissapoint those who are desperately looking for scientific evidence that “music makes you smart”:

While it appears that music practice might have impacts on ‘general intelligence’, the underlying neural mechanism remains unclear. Our finding of enhanced performance after a year of musical training on the digit span task suggests that this experience affects working memory capacity, at least to some extent. Alternatively, it might be also related to the more advanced perseverance skills and/or the ability to sustain focused attention observed in Suzuki children compared with children enrolled in other activity such as creative movement classes (Scott, 1992). This interpretation is also consistent with the enhanced changes on N250m component in the Suzuki group, which could be related to attentional modulation. [emphasis added]

Given the limited “musical” nature of the first year of Suzuki training (repeated mimicry of a passage of music presented aurally — that is, rote memorization), it seems to me that all this study demonstrates is that children who copy something in their environment, repeatedly and from memory, develop memory skills and the ability to process the kind of stimulus to which they continually focus their attention. Granted, musical study is a simple and often enjoyable way for children to focus on developing these skills. But this can’t be limited to rote memorization of music, particularly when the researchers admit that this study may just demonstrate “the more advanced perseverance skills and/or the ability to sustain focused attention observed in Suzuki children” (and possibly the effect of parents who encourage/force their children to do so), not anything particularly magical about the musical experience. And of course, it should go without saying that this study says nothing of the effect that listening to “classical” music while studying/working or participating in a school band/choir/orchestra has on adolescents and adults, though some in the news media surely will atempt to make that link.

However, I am happy that researchers are attempting to address the often made claim that “music makes you smart” in a controlled environment. I’m afraid that the control they require may elude them in the long run, but this approach may yield some valuable fruit. I am interested to see how further evidence in this direction may pan out as there are many interesting ways in which this research can further develop.

What do you think of this study?

If you would like to read the article, you can find the abstract and the full text here (you may need to access through your university’s proxy server for full text access). If the article is too technical a read (it was for me), has a good synopsis of the study as well. (The synopsis has since been removed.)