A little music training goes a long way

  • Gillian Tsoi

Practicing music for only few years in childhood helps improve the adult brain, according to a new study in the US.

Even a small amount of music training goes a long way in improving how a child's brain functions in adulthood when it comes to listening and the complex processing of sound.

Researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois for the first time directly examined what happens after children stop playing a musical instrument after only a few years - something that commonly happens in childhood.

Compared to those with no musical training, adults with one to five years of musical training as children had enhanced brain responses to complex sounds, making them more effective at pulling out the fundamental frequency of the sound signal.

The fundamental frequency, which is the lowest frequency in sound, is crucial for speech and music perception, allowing recognition of sounds in complex and noisy auditory environments.

"Thus, musical training as children makes better listeners later in life," said Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Communication Sciences at Northwestern.

"Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain," she said, "the study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning."

"We help address a question on every parent's mind: 'Will my child benefit if she plays music for a short while but then quits training?'" Kraus said.

Many children have group or private music lessons, but few continue with formal music classes beyond their school years.

For the study, young adults with varying amounts of past musical training were tested by measuring electrical signals from the auditory brainstem in response to eight complex sounds ranging in pitch.

Because the brain signal reflects the sound signal, researchers are able to observe how key elements of the sound are captured by the nervous system and how these elements might be weakened or strengthened in different people with different experiences and abilities.

Forty-five adults were grouped into three age and IQ groups based on histories of musical instruction. One group had no musical instruction; another had one to five years; and the other had to six to 11 years. Both musically trained groups began instrumental practice around nine-years-old, a common age for in-school musical instruction to begin. As predicted, musical training during childhood led to more robust neural processing of sounds later in life.

Prior research on highly trained musicians and early bilinguals revealed that enhanced brainstem responses to sound are associated with heightened auditory perception, executive function and auditory communication skills.

"The way you hear sound today is dictated by the experiences with sound you've had up until today," she said.

"This new finding is a clear embodiment of this theme."

"We hope to use this new finding, in combination with past discoveries, to understand the type of education and remediation strategies, such as music classes and auditory-based training that might be most effective in combating the negative impact of poverty," she said.

By understanding the brain's capacity to change and then maintain these changes, the research can inform the development of effective and long-lasting auditory-based educational and rehabilitative programs.

The research, which is contained in the report, A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.



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