Practicing a musical instrument in childhood may lead to improved verbal skills and nonverbal reasoning, according to a study published in the Oct. 29 issue of the open-access journal PLoS ONE.
The study, led by neuroscientists Gottfried Schlaug at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Ellen Winner at Boston College, is one of a growing number that suggest that a child who receives instrumental music training may show benefit in other cognitive domains, from enhanced reading skills to better spatial abilities. [See also the report of the Arts & Cognition consortium supported by Dana Foundation. The Schlaug/Winner study also was funded in part by the Dana Foundation.]
Schlaug and colleagues tested 41 children between the ages of 8 and 11 who had at least three years of instrumental music training and compared them with a control group of 18 children who had no instrumental training. Both groups received general music classes in school.
In tests of fine motor skills and auditory discrimination, tasks closely related to music making, the instrumental group outperformed the control group, as was expected. But the instrumental group also outperformed the control group in vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning—skills less directly related to music making. In addition, the longer the children had studied their instruments, the better they did on these tests.
Schlaug was not surprised by these results. “Music making and language making use very similar regions in the brain,” he says. “If you train within one domain, there may be a spillover to the other domain if that other domain uses 90 percent of the same brain region.” The enhancement in nonverbal reasoning may be associated with pattern recognition skills developed by reading musical notation, he says.
One of the surprises in the study was the apparent lack of enhancement in mathematical or spatial skills in the instrumental group; previous research had suggested these skills were enhanced, as well. One possible explanation, says Schlaug, is that this study did not last long enough to see these effects.
Elizabeth Spelke, a neuroscientist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study but who has conducted research in this field, says that the effects of musical training on mathematical ability might be diluted when measured through complex tasks, such as those used in the study. She also said a larger sample group and a longer training period might be needed to see cognitive benefits in these domains. “I think their work is complementary to work we have been doing,” she adds. “One of the particularly interesting things is the link between music training and verbal ability. I think that the study brings that finding out.”
Results from correlative studies looking at the effects of music training on the brain are conflicting, and many questions remain.
“There’s a lot of controversy in the field on whether or not cognitive effects from instrumental training are general or specific,” says Schlaug, but he adds that the predictive power of the duration of music training seen in the study strongly suggests and supports a causal relationship. He and his colleagues are conducting a longitudinal study in which they hope to show a relationship more clearly.