Music 'Tones the Brain,' Improves Learning

Strumming that guitar could help this little girl not only with dexterity, but also with brainy vocabulary tests. (Image credit: dreamstime.)

Learning to play a musical instrument changes the brain, leading to a slew of potential benefits, including improved learning and understanding of language, according to a recent review article.

Studies highlighted in the review suggest connections made between brain cells during musical training can aid in other forms of communication, such as speech, reading and understanding a foreign language.

"The effect of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness," the researchers say.

The studies suggest society should "re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development," and schools should consider boosting efforts to incorporate musical training into the curriculum, the researchers say.

The findings are published today in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Musical brains

A musician's ear must be particularly attuned to musical sounds, timing and quality. Studies have shown such training leads to changes in the brain's auditory system. For instance, pianists show more brain activity in their auditory cortex — the part of the brain responsible for processing sounds — than non-musicians in response to hearing piano notes.

Musicians also have larger brain volumes in areas important for playing a musical instrument, including motor and auditory regions, the researchers say.

These advantages of music training appear to cross over to our understanding of speech.

Music and speech have quite a bit in common. They both use pitch and timing to get information across, and both require memory and attention skills to process, the researchers say.

Studies show children with musical training have more neural activity in response to changes in pitch during speech than those without such training. An enhanced ability to detect changes in pitch might help musicians better judge emotion in speech or distinguish a statement from a question. Musically trained children have better vocabularies and reading abilities than children who don't have this musical education.

The musically trained may also fare better when learning a foreign language. Musicians are better able to put together sound patterns into words for a foreign language, the researchers say.

Distinguishing speech from noise

Musicians can also better understand speech in a noisy environment, studies show, an ability likely due to the fact that they must learn to distinguish specific sounds within melodies.

Musical training might help children with certain learning disorders, such as dyslexia, who are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of background noise, according to the review article. "Music training seems to strengthen the same neural processes that often are deficient in individuals with developmental dyslexia or who have difficulty hearing speech in noise," the researchers say.

However, currently most studies looking at the beneficial effects of music training on skills such as language have involved those privileged enough to afford musical training. Also, it's possible that some non-musicians opted to quit their training, because they didn't experience the same benefits from it, the researchers say.

Studying the effects of music training in school-administered programs could help scientists better understand its brain benefits.

The review was written by Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran of Northwestern University in Illinois.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.