Studies reveal music’s big impacts on growing brain

We’ve always been passionate believers in the value of music and art ecducation starting at the earliest years.

Gowing up in Kansas in the 1950s, we were the beneficiary of musical education that started in elementary school, where we participated in both singing and band programs, acquiring a love of music that has lasted throughout these last seven decades.

Our paternal grandmother was an elementary school teacher in Abilene, Kansas, and music was a critical part of her daily teaching. After her death in 1959, we received a letter from one her colleagues, telling us that one of her students had written that he still found inspiration in songs he had learned in her first and second grade classes.

The pupil was Dwight David Eisenhower, then serving as President of the United States.

Music and fine arts programs slashed as testing rises

But today, in classrooms across the country, education is music and the fine arts has fallen prey to a combination of budget cuts and the relentless imperative of the standardized test, a regime designed to turn out cogs in the machine rather than well-rounded, independent-minded individuals.

As the journal of the National Education Association reported in 2014:

Across the nation, the testing obsession has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies, and science, not to mention world languages, financial literacy, and that old standby, penmanship. Our schools, once vigorous and dynamic centers for learning, have been reduced to mere test prep factories, where teachers and students act out a script written by someone who has never visited their classroom and where “achievement” means nothing more than scoring well on a bubble test.

“NCLB [No Child Left Behind] has corrupted what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” explains NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Teachers have to teach in secret and hope they don’t get into trouble for teaching to the Whole Child instead of teaching to the test.”

A Google search for the words “music education elementary schools eliminated” turns up more than a million hits, a tragic litany of stories reporting slashed programs across the nation and throughout much of the Western world.

Musical training improves standardized testing scores

Ironically, music education actually improves children’s test scores, as the Children’s Music Workshop notes:

Music education programs increase children’s cognitive development. Also, research shows that “preschoolers who took daily 30 minute group singing lessons and a weekly 10-15 minute private keyboard lesson scored 80 percent higher in object assembly skills than students who did not have the music lessons,” as reported in a 1994 study by Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw at the University of California, Irvine (Harvey, 1997). It is clear that music education programs dramatically stimulate a child’s learning capacity, as shown in drastic increases in the scores of children who participated in music programs. Music education programs can begin as early as preschool and should continue for the greatest results.

When music education is sustained throughout the elementary years, children continue to learn better through the clear connections between music and other areas of study. For instance, a 1999 study presented in Neurological Research reveals that when second and third-grade students were taught fractions through basic music rhythm notation, they “scored a full 100% higher on fractions tests than those who learned in the conventional manner.” This study shows that the students who learned about the mathematical concept of fractions related their music knowledge of the relationships between eighth, quarter, half and whole notes in order to fully understand the material.

Students in music programs consistently score better on tests, as also exemplified in the 2001 study compiled by Music Educators National Conference, which exhibits that “SAT takers with coursework/experience in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 41 points higher on the math portion than students with no coursework/experience in the arts.” It is obvious that when students have experience in music education in both the elementary and high school level, they perform considerably better in other important subjects as well. Music education programs in the elementary school level are necessary for the future success of students in all subject areas.

Musical training reshapes the brain

A major study by scientists from Harvard and McGill University and published in the Journal of Neuroscience [open access] used brain imaging to map changes in children’s brains resulting from musical study concluded with this summary:

M]usical training over only 15 months in early childhood leads to structural brain changes that diverge from typical brain development. Regional training-induced structural brain changes were found in musically relevant regions that were driven by musically relevant behavioral tests. The fact there were no structural brain differences found between groups before the onset of musical training indicates that the differential development of these brain regions is induced by instrumental practice rather by than preexisting biological predictors of musicality. These results provide new evidence for training-induced structural brain plasticity in early childhood. These findings of structural plasticity in the young brain suggest that long-term intervention programs can facilitate neuroplasticity in children. Such an intervention could be of particular relevance to children with developmental disorders and to adults with neurological diseases.

And yet another study proves the power of music. . .and dance

And now comes yet another study revealing the direct impact of education in music and dance on the brains of growing children.

From Concordia University in Montreal:

Endless hours at the barre. Long afternoons practising scales. All that time you spent in piano lessons and dance classes as a youngster may have seemed like a pain, but new research now confirms what your parents claimed: it’s good for mind and body.

In fact, a recent study published in NeuroImage ($35.95 to access] by a team* of researchers from the the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, proves that dance and music training have even stronger effects on the brain than previously understood — but in markedly different ways.

The researchers used high-tech imaging techniques to compare the effects of dance and music training on the white matter structure of experts in these two disciplines. They then examined the relationship between training-induced brain changes and dance and music abilities.

“We found that dancers and musicians differed in many white matter regions, including sensory and motor pathways, both at the primary and higher cognitive levels of processing,” says Chiara Giacosa, Concordia PhD candidate and the study’s lead author.

In particular, dancers showed broader connections of fibre bundles linking the sensory and motor brain regions themselves, as well as broader fibre bundles connecting the brain’s two hemispheres — in the regions that process sensory and motor information —. In contrast, musicians had stronger and more coherent fibre bundles in those same pathways.

“This suggests that dance and music training affect the brain in opposite directions, increasing global connectivity and crossing of fibres in dance training, and strengthening specific pathways in music training,” Giacosa explains. “Indeed, while dancers train their whole body, which has a broader representation in the neural cortex, musicians focus their training on some specific body parts, such as hands, fingers or the mouth, which have a smaller cortical representation in the brain.”

‘This work has major potential’

Interestingly, dancers and musicians differed more between each other than in comparison to the group of control subjects who had no extensive formal training in either field.

According to Giacosa, this can happen because a range of uncontrolled variables influenced the control subjects in different ways, making them more similar to one group or the other. “Contrary to that, our samples of dancers and musicians were specifically selected to be pure groups of experts, which makes it easier to differentiate between them.”

Virginia Penhune is a professor and chair of Concordia’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author. She notes that this research deepens the current knowledge about how regions of the brain are connected in networks, and how these structural networks change with training.

“This work has major potential for being applied to the fields of education and rehabilitation,” Penhune says. “Understanding how dance and music training differently affect brain networks will allow us to selectively use them to enhance their functioning or compensate for difficulties and diseases that involve those specific brain networks.”

Some studies have already shown how music training at a young age can improve various cognitive skills, but dance has yet to be used in a similar way.

“Recent research has started to show some improvements with dance and music therapy in patients affected by Parkinson’s disease and children with autism respectively, but much more can be done with these and other diseases,” says Penhune.

*Partners in research: The co-authors of this study — Chiara Giacosa, Falisha J. Karpati, Nicholas E.V. Foster, Virginia Penhune, and principal investigator Krista L. Hyde — are all members of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research. Foster and Hyde are also part of McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine. Karpati and Hyde are also part of the Department of Psychology at l’Université de Montréal. This study was funded in part by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

And we conclude with a video

One of the states hardest hit by cuts to music education is Arizona, where a combination of austerian Republican governments and a middle class rush to private schools have left most school districts without funding for the humanities.

Arizona musician/journalists Alec Damiano and Anastasia Landeros have responded to those cuts with a short documentary on the value of music education, and it’s well worth your time:

LISTEN – A Documentary on the Importance of Music Education

Program notes:

“Listen” explores the importance of keeping music education in public schools. It has been documented that music assists students in learning, relieving stress, and has other benefits.

But a 2010 study conducted by the Arizona Department of Education revealed that 50 percent of public schools surveyed gave a budget of $0 to arts education. 75 percent of schools that did allocate money spent less than $1 per student per year.

With funding these programs being a major predicament in the Arizona budget, “Listen” also explores alternatives to expensive traditional marching band and orchestra programs that still give students important life skills.

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