Music and the Mind

By , March 11, 2008 8:29 pm

Since music was our Unplugged Project theme for last week, this seems to be a very appropriate time to talk about an interesting study that was just released by the Dana Foundation. The report shows a correlation between music training (any performance art training, in fact) and higher academic performance.

This has been demonstrated before, but the Dana study brought together cognitive scientists from seven US universities to try to figure out more precisely how and why this correlation exists. According to the Dana Foundation website, this study “…brings us closer to answering the question: Are smart people drawn to the arts or does arts training make people smarter?”

I don’t know how it was when you were in high school, but when I was there, those of us “nerds” in the band and orchestra did seem to be the kids who performed better in school than those who were not involved in music. I always assumed that most children who were in music perhaps had more involved parents, and that was the explanation. Or maybe “smarter” kids were somehow more drawn to music. But now it seems that there might actually also be some concrete scientific reasons for the “smart band kid” stereotype!

Here is a brief summation of the report’s findings (directly quoted from the website’s study summary page):

Here is a summary of what the group has learned:

1. An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.

2. Genetic studies have begun to yield candidate genes that may help explain individual differences in interest in the arts.

3. Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.

4. In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.

5. Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.

6. Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.

7. Adult self-reported interest in aesthetics is related to a temperamental factor of openness, which in turn is influenced by dopamine-related genes.

8. Learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice, both in the level of achievement and also the neural substrates that support the organization of complex actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills.

The Foundation hopes to be able to continue and expand the study to really identify the precise biological brain mechanisms at work in the positive effects on the brain of artistic training.

Although I am opposed to the overscheduling of children that is so common these days, my one “mandatory” extra-curricular activity has always been learning a musical instrument. This study furthers my resolve to have my children learn an instrument. I feel that musical training has had an extremely positive effect on my life, and I want to pass that gift along to my children.

Furthermore, the fact that music and arts training seems to be so beneficial for overall brain development, makes it even more tragic that schools are cutting back on such programs.


+ About the study: Effects of Instrumental Music Training on Brain and Cognitive Development in Young Children: A Longitudinal Study

+ Summary of findings: Arts and Cognition: Findings Hint at Relationships (Summary)

+ Research Consortium Finds New Evidence Linking Arts and Learning, article by Brenda Patoine – A really interesting summary of the study and what it means!

+ MSNBC Video Report: Better Minds Through Music (Length 2:16) – This very brief news report only covers the work of one scientist involved in the study, Dr. Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard, who found a correlation between musical training and an enhanced abilities in geometric reasoning.

+ Follow-up comments from the public to the MSNBC report

+ Download the full PDF version of study here.

4 Responses to “Music and the Mind”

  1. Kate in NJ says:

    My DH and Brothers were all “band geeks” and “math/science geeks”
    For me it was drama and choir.;-)
    My little P has a strong natural desire for both music and math!

  2. Jenny says:

    What a fascinating study. My husband was a band AND computer geek (and this was back in the mid-80s!), and i was just a square peg who wanted to play the saxophone but never got the chance. CJ really enjoys music, and I’m definitely going to encourage her to learn an instrument (Dad is pushing for the drums to he can play them too).

  3. jen says:

    There is definitely a connection. Tom and I are both lifelong band geeks…but I hatehatehate math. Tolerate is being generous. But the study of music, whether instrumental or choral, is an incredible way to learn self-discipline, time management, self-motivation, and working with others. I can’t recommend music study highly enough. A has no interest at this time, so he’ll get it later. But J, at 3 1/2, is already asking for violin lessons…which he’ll start this summer. And I can’t wait. :)

  4. greenemother says:

    Yeah, what a great study! As an in hiatus elementary music teacher, I’m so glad that these studies yet again prove what we’ve always known. Now, if we could just send these studies to every single principle and school administrator out there, then maybe we could see the arts come back into the schools where they belong!

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