After the 'Mozart Effect': Music's Real Impact on the Brain

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

It stopped just short of promising eyesight to the blind or rain from dry skies. But disciples of the 1993 "Mozart Effect" study made impressive claims: Listening to music, they said, could boost Junior's math scores and maybe even get him into Harvard. The idea sparked a cottage industry of CDs, classes and books for babies and toddlers.

But the now-famous study was vastly misconstrued, and 20 years and many studies later, neuroscientists are giving us a broader understanding of how musical training can impact brain development and cognition.

The latest addition to the body of research came with a study published on Wednesday in the Journal of Neuroscience. It showed that people who took music lessons during childhood seem to have a faster brain response to speech much later in life – even if the child musicians hadn't picked up their instruments in decades.

“What happens when we get older is that neural responses slow down, especially in response to very fast and complicated sounds like consonants,” Dr. Nina Krauss, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University tells Naomi Lewin. The study included 44 adults, aged 55 to 76, who listened to a recorded speech sound while the researchers measured electrical activity in the auditory brainstem, the region of the brain that processes sound. The more years that a person spent playing instruments during childhood, the faster their brains responded to the speech sound.

Kraus’s lab has been a driving force in research around music and brain development. Among her other recent studies is one involving the Harmony Project, a program providing free instruments and instruction to at-risk kids in Los Angeles. Students there were tested on their ability to identify rhythmic patterns.

"After a year of training, the kids who have been in the music training are better able to synchronize to the beat and to remember the beat,” said Kraus. This can serve to promote other cognitive skills, such as reading and speech.

Virginia Penhune, a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, says there's a "sensitive period" when musical training most interacts with normal brain development. Earlier this year, her lab published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience in which 36 adult musicians had their brains scanned while performing a simple movement exercise. Half of these musicians began musical training before age seven; the other half began at a later age.

“What we found is that the younger you start your training, the stronger the connection between the two motor regions of your brain,” she said. Crucial to this phenomenon is the high level of hand coordination involved in playing a violin or piano, for instance. So, according to Penhune, "We think it’s that part of what you practice that changes these connections [in your brain]."

And what of the Mozart Effect? Do those "Mozart for Babies" recordings haunt scientists today, misrepresenting music’s intrinsic capabilities? Or did the 1993 study raise the overall awareness for cognitive research involving music?

"One of the difficulties of the Mozart Effect was it was associated with the passive listening of music,” said Kraus. "The work that Virginia and I have been talking about is really in stark contrast to that. It is the active engagement with an instrument.”

Penhune agrees. “It also brings up this idea of, what do you expect music to do for you? Really why we take music lessons is we want kids to learn music and enjoy music and have social benefits of music. Thinking of it only as a way to change other things is a little bit of a mistake.”

Listen to the full discussion above and weigh in: Have you studied music or prescribed musical studies specifically to boost brain power? Has it worked? Leave your comments below.

Editors:

Brian Wise

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Comments [16]

Courtney from Idaho Falls, Idaho

I am a senior in high school and have recently been involved in music since I was in the sixth grade. I am now in my second trimester of school without taking a music class and it has had quite the effect on my classes. While taking band it helped not only with my coordination, but also with my responsiveness. I would try to schedule my core classes after band because I came out of class with a quick and sharp brain. Math often seems to work better after listening to music and my focus is always much clearer. I found this blog while doing research for a paper in my english class, and I definitely feel that music is a positive thing to have in schools. I would dare say it should be required because of its many contributions to education.

Dec. 11 2013 02:21 PM
Steve from White Plains, NY

So it won't turn babies into geniuses or musical prodigies overnight. There's still a strong case to be made for exposing children to good music, the earlier the better and, when they are ready, to allow them to study an instrument. It has been proven that such children are much less likely to fall prey to 'peer pressure' and get into drugs or alcohol or criminality. That's reason enough for me.

Nov. 11 2013 11:23 AM

And how long before this study is debunked...?

Nov. 10 2013 08:45 PM
Sonia from Washington, DC

Mary Lou, listen to more music! A Master's degree student in any subject should know the difference between "affect" and "effect". I personally think that music is most effective on children's learning, and should never be used as "background," as this is not listening, it is ignoring.

Nov. 10 2013 02:26 PM
Mary Lou H. from NYC

This is all so interesting! I am finishing up a grad school thesis for my masters in Education on background music in the elementary school classroom. There has been so much written about the impact of music on cognitive performance, but much less on affect on behavior. The ONLY music I have ever been able to listen to when working/writing is Mozart/Bach/Vivaldi but with no lyrics and never pop, rock, etc., though i love to listen to those
when I am not having to concentrate.

Nov. 09 2013 09:27 PM
Gloria from WP

My sweet mother never understood how I was able the study while listening to music a bit loud. I always did well in school and I still have the same habit while going to grad school. Music always helped me to focus and to stay motivated and I could never give up my studies.

Nov. 09 2013 11:55 AM
Darryl

Bernie, now how do you know Jackie's parents are abusive? Sounds like a rant from Tim Page or is that too obvious.

Nov. 09 2013 02:44 AM
Bernie from UWS

Darryl: I'm not sure what Jackie Evancho has to do with the Mozart Effect...but if you're so concerned with her welfare, why not go after her parents, who are parading her around the world like a child beauty queen? Just a little more abusive than what someone says on the radio.

Nov. 08 2013 01:37 PM
Myriam from West Milford, NJ

When I listen to Mozart at home or in a concert hall I feel like the music is invading my whole body in an inner celestial kind of aura that makes me cry of absolute delight and happiness. I feel embarrassed when people see me wiping my tears, but that is what Mozart, dear Mozart's music means to me. Myriam Thelemaque

Nov. 08 2013 12:57 PM
cristina araujo from quilmes, argentina

I am a teacher of English and some time ago I had to teach a blind child. I used a method called suggestopedia which includes a lot of background music and I mainly used Mozart for some sessions and Vivaldi for others. The result was so amazing that I even wrote my theses about that experience.

Nov. 08 2013 09:19 AM
Darryl

Just heard your interview done in 2012 with Tim Page concerning Jackie Evancho, horrific! How could YOU let Tim crucify Jackie without somekind of compassion for the child? Shame on YOU! We all know Tim is ill, we can excuse his rants, but YOU have no excuse! Children should be protected and nurtured, anything less is just plain ignorance or at worst cowardice.

Nov. 08 2013 02:26 AM
Margaret from NYC

I simply would add that I began reading very early without much instruction and was an advanced reader, apart from school, by age 9-10. My love of music just began to develop at that age and intensified in my teens and beyond. (I asked for piano lessons at age 8, but at that time my parents hadn't the means.) Perhaps the auditory experiences of music and speech are related in such a way that one enhances the other, without necessarily being a cause or effect. Just from my own experience, the love of music and the love of speech go hand in hand. And again anecdotally, my late husband spoke three languages and had a passion for music and opera, attended performances of both, and collected about 900 albums; he remained incredibly sharp mentally right up to his last illness and passing at age 92.

Nov. 08 2013 12:17 AM
Margaret from NYC

While playing an instrument is an active kinetic engagement with music, listening to music is not a passive activity, as suggested above. There is a strong component of mental and emotional activity that accompanies the listening. I believe this has a beneficial effect on brain function, if perhaps in a different way than for musicians. The study discussed seems to have had a rather narrow focus of inquiry. When I listen to music, I am anticipating certain passages and developments, and "accompanying" them mentally; this is a sort of mental exercise. Both during and after listening to music, I find I have a clearer mind and much sharper thought processes. While in college, especially when writing papers, I usually had a Bach piece playing -- this could go on for hours of work. (I reached for the Bach instinctively, without consciously attempting to boost my mental performance.) To this day, listening to Bach or Mozart relaxes and focuses my mind as nothing else does. I also have better memory and recall of thoughts and events, and develop (and follow the development of) a complex idea with more fluency. From my own experience, I doubt one must be a trained musician to experience significant benefits from listening to classical or baroque music, both of which have structure in them that engages the brain and apparently supports mental functioning.

Nov. 07 2013 11:39 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

This is a wonderful blog. To expand a bit on it, I have a very close friend who is a Registered Nurse and certified Music Therapist. She is a nurse manager at a Maryland hospice.
Recently they worked with several neuro psychologists on studies of music effects on non responsive patients.
The EEG's on patients whom the doctors thought were not responsive to any stimuli showed marked activity when music was played for these patients on headphones.
I recall that the controversial Dr. Jack Kevorkian requested just before he slipped into a coma followed several days later by his death, that Bach recordings be played in his room until his death.
It is known that a great many surgeons play music of various genres in operating rooms during surgery they perform to relax them during stressful times.
As far as music lessons in early childhood, one should be careful that even the most talented young musical prodigies still get a broad liberal arts education.
I studied Cello recently with a young man who went through undergraduate and graduate studies in Cello at Julliard. His private high school education was almost totally musically oriented also.
He was a child prodigy and his mother is a well known violinist and his father a world class Cellist.
He told me that after graduating with his Masters from Julliard, he took a job in sales for a company for one year.
When I asked why, he was very upfront. He remarked that his entire life was oriented around music and Cello studies.
He felt he knew nothing about the real world and what people who were not into professional musical careers did with their lives. He was well schooled by the worlds best musicians but knew little about the "real world."
He has returned to music full time now and is teaching locally in Virginia, but he feels closer to others now that he has had a chance to venture into what he calls "the real world."
There have been studies showing that professional musicians who graduated for State Universities where liberal arts studies were required along with their music education progressed faster in their professional careers as musicians and felt more fulfilled than students who have spent their childhood and teen aged years in Conservatories that focused almost totally on performance education.
Balance should be the key when it comes to musical mentoring. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 07 2013 06:08 PM
Adrienne D. from New York City

I'm not surprised that there was a study which showed listening to Mozart "would boost Junior's math scores." Mozart's music is very mathematical. It's one of the reasons I like his music so much.

Nov. 07 2013 04:21 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

Specifically to increase brain power???.....no, it just happened naturally. (ha,ha,ha)

Nov. 07 2013 02:08 PM

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