Many parents are strong believers in music lessons. It is commonly said that piano lessons will make children better at math, better at reading, more creative, or just generally smarter. Yet music programs are often among the first to be cut from public school budgets.
In 2005, Schlaug et al. published results from a longitudinal study in which they examined the effects of musical training in five- to seven-year-olds. They tested the two groups of children for strength in visual-spatial, verbal, and mathematical skills, and gathered brain scan data. The results were even, as expected. The researchers waited a year, during which one of the groups took music lessons, and then repeated the tests. They found significant differences in brain structure between the two groups, showing that the lessons induced neural plasticity. Differences in the test scores were not statistically significant, so they did not indicate any cognitive benefit of musical training. However, the results were slightly stronger for the musicians; with a bigger sample size, the researchers point out, it is possible that the difference would be statistically significant .
In fact, a study two years earlier already supported a positive benefit on certain cognitive abilities. The ERIC Digest conducted meta-analyses on several existing studies in order to increase sample sizes and draw stronger conclusions. They first analyzed 15 studies on the spatial reasoning abilities of children aged 3-12 who had studied music and found that they significantly outperformed non-musicians. Interestingly, they also concluded that a minimum of two years of training was required for these effects to persist after the training ended .
People often claim that studying music makes children better at math as well. ERIC Digest analyzed studies of this hypothesis. Based on a meta-analysis of 6 studies, they concluded that there was some support for the hypothesis, but noted that the sample size was small. The last skill they studied was reading ability, but did not find any reliable evidence that musical training was beneficial in that area .
Just last year, several studies shed new light on some of the effects of musical training. The first study, presented at the Neuroscience 2013 conference, investigated musicians’ ability to integrate different sensory information. They investigated audiotactile illusions, in which a slight change in an audio stimulus can change a person’s perception of a constant tactile stimulus. The study found that these illusions were much more common in non-musicians than musicians. The researchers argued that this implied that musicians could process the two senses more independently .
A different study further investigated brain structure development, and its relation to the age at which children begin music studies. They studied brain structure in 48 college age musicians, and pinpointed structural differences in different areas of the brain. The most interesting finding was the difference in brain structure between those who started before age seven, and those who didn’t. The musicians who started earlier had more brain volume in areas linked to hearing and self-awareness. This was the first time that music’s effects on specific skills were linked to structural differences in the brain .
The third research project investigated the effects of improvisation on the brain, specifically the frontal cortex, which is responsible for many of the most complicated brain functions. They asked musicians to improvise while conducting scans of their brains. The musicians had a wide variety of experience in classical and jazz training, and thus a different level of improvisational skill. The research found that those with more experience in improvisation activated their brains very differently, using many more connections within the frontal cortex. Interestingly, these added connections were mainly present in areas known to function in motion, suggesting that the more experienced improvisers had learned how to be more creative and the process became more automated .
Just this year, a Johns Hopkins research project explored the improvisational aspect of musical training in relation to language processing. They used functional MRI scans to study the activation of brain areas in jazz musicians improvising together. They discovered that the musicians activated areas of the brain that were also activated during language processing, suggesting yet another skill that could benefit from playing music. The researchers also determined that the brain areas in question were not specific to spoken language; they are activated while reading, as well .
All this research supports strong benefits that result from music studies, especially when the instruction begins before the age of seven and includes elements of improvisation. However, despite this research, there are many news stories of public schools cutting music programs more than other areas when balancing their budgets. For example, Philadelphia made huge budget cuts at the end of last year, including a complete elimination of music education . Just this year, Iowa City approved of drastic cuts to their music programs . Unfortunately, it is difficult to find recent statistics on the extent of music program elimination across the nation, especially because the states and towns disagree on methods of quantifying arts education programs.7 Regardless, cuts to music programs seem to be common, despite their widespread benefits to students.
References Schlaug, G.; Norton, A.; Overy, K.; Winner, E., Effects of Music Training on the Child’s Brain and Cognitive Development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2005, 1060 (1), 219-230.  Rauscher, F. H., Can Music Instruction Affect Children’s Cognitive Development? ERIC Digest. 2003.  Neuroscience 2013. Society for Neuroscience: 2013.  Donnay, G. F.; Rankin, S. K.; Lopez-Gonzalez, M.; Jiradejvong, P.; Limb, C. J., Neural Substrates of Interactive Musical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of ‘Trading Fours’ in Jazz. PloS one 2014, 9 (2), e88665.  Martha Woodall, M. C.-A. Phila. SRC approves doomsday school budget 2013. http://articles.philly.com/2013-06-01/news/39658243_1_school-budget-dworetzky-new-funds.  Gregg Hennigan, J. K. Foreign Language, Music, Football Among Programs to be Cut in Iowa City Schools 2014. http://www.kcrg.com/news/local/Foreign-language-music-football-among-programs-to-be-cut-in-Iowa-City-schools-254469621.html.  The Sound of Silence: The Unprecedented Decline of Music Education in California Public Schools.
Nicholas Griffiths is an undergraduate student at Northwestern University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.