Longtime Benefits from Early Music Lessons



Music lessons in childhood may result in changes in the brain that persist for life

When children learn to play a musical instrument, they acquire a range of auditory skills. Many studies show that these benefits extend all through life, at least for those who continue to be engaged with music.

However, the first study to prove that music lessons in childhood may result in changes in the brain that persist years after the lessons have stopped was published last month.

Researchers at Northwestern University in the U.S. recorded the electrical brain waves of college students in response to complex sounds. The group of students with musical training in childhood had better responses since their brains were better able to pick out essential elements in the complex sounds when they were tested. And this was true even for people who had stopped with their lessons years ago.

Scientists are trying to understand the connections between music lessons in childhood and language-based learning. Recent studies indicate that learning to play an instrument may have some unexpected benefits.

These studies focus on the effects of active engagement and discipline. This kind of musical training improves the brain’s ability to pick out the components of sound.

Professor Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University says that all the things you need to learn to read can be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.

Moreover, the skill of understanding the subtle qualities of sound, even against a complicated and noisy background, is important for an elderly person suffering from hearing loss.

A study of those who do keep playing showed that as musicians age, they experience the same decline in peripheral hearing as nonmusicians. Older musicians, however, preserve the central auditory processing skills that can help you understand speech against the background of a noisy environment.

According to Dr. Claude Alain, assistant director of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and one of the authors of the study, the older adults who are musically trained perform better on speech in noise tests.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, are approaching the soundscape from a different point of view. They are studying the genetics of the absolute pitch or the ability to identify any tone. Dr. Jane Gitschier, a professor of medicine and pediatrics who leads the study there, and her colleagues are trying to understand both the genetics and the effects of early training.

She said her team is trying to find out what are the variants in people’s genomes that could predispose an individual to have absolute pitch.

As a matter of fact, almost everyone who is having truly absolute pitch turns out to have had musical training in childhood.

Alexandra Parbery-Clark is a doctoral candidate in Dr. Kraus’s lab and one of the authors of a paper published this year on auditory working memory and music. She said that her desire to go back to graduate school and study the brain resulted from teaching at a French school for musically talented children, and observing the ways that musical training affected other kinds of learning.

According to her, if you get a kid who is maybe 3 or 4 years old and you’re teaching them to attend, they’re developing not only their auditory skills but also their attention skills and their memory skills.

Now Ms. Parbery-Clark and her colleagues can observe recordings of the brain’s electrical detection of sounds, and they can see that the musically trained brains are producing different — and stronger — responses.

Actually, many of the researchers in this area are themselves musicians interested in the plasticity of the brain and the effects of musical education on brain waves, which reflect the stimulus sounds.

Researchers admit that it is fascinating to learn what the brain can do, and to puzzle out the many effects of the combination of stimulation, application, practice and auditory exercise that musical education has. However, they all say that there is not one best way to apply these findings.

Families should find what instrument, teaching method, and regimen appeal to the individual child, since this should be about pleasure and mastery. Also, parents need to care about music, not just use it as a therapeutic tool.

Music is great and parents should let their children enjoy it for what it really is, instead of using it as a cognitive skills improvement tool.

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