Monday 14 April 2014

In support of school band

In my family, spring means that it's time to look ahead to the following school year and try to figure out what activities to sign up for.  Should we continue with soccer?  Add a new sport?  Try a youth orchestra?  It’s always challenging to accommodate everyone’s interests while managing to not overschedule ourselves AND to stay within our budget.  We try to find low-cost activities and ones that are in our neighbourhood or near the children’s school. 

We’ve been increasingly grateful for the programs that are offered as options at the school itself.  My children have participated in cross-country running, track and field, school choir, and drama.  And this past year, Sophia, as a grade 5 student, was able to join the school band, playing the oboe.  It’s been great.  The school band is convenient – right at the school where we’re going anyway; it’s with her friends, so they get the pleasure of playing music together; and, to be perfectly honest, the price is right.  School band is free.  (Well, free-ish.  There’s a small fee, plus we have to rent the oboe, and buy the books and reeds.) And band is going well.  Her music teacher seems to be doing a fine job of herding all these 10-year-old kids, all with completely different music backgrounds and playing all sorts of different instruments, into a semblance of a musical ensemble.

So I was completely unimpressed to hear that the Vancouver School Board is proposing to eliminate their elementary school band and strings programs in an effort to save money.  Argh.

This is happening everywhere, I know.  Music programs are among the first to be cut when there are budgetary concerns.  The decision-makers can very clearly see that reading and math are good for kids, but many believe that the arts programs are “fluff”, dispensable.  So I thought I’d spend a little time today putting together a list of the strong scientific evidence for the positive effects of musical training on cognition and well-being.  Ammunition, if you will, for fighting in favour of music programs in the schools.

Before I get to that, I feel that should add a caveat.  While I definitely believe that musical training has cognitive benefits, that is not why I enrol my children in music lessons.  Music offers us an unparalleled access to joy, a vehicle for self-expression, and, by playing in a group, an opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  Musical training is a gift we give our children, like learning to read, or learning to understand the world around us.  It should be part of the educational program, so that no child is excluded from the multitude of benefits that learning to make music offers.

Benefits of Musical Training on Cognitive Function and Emotional Well-Being

Musical training enhances auditory processing, leading to better verbal skills and increased reading ability:

  • Musical training enhances brainstem auditory responses to both speech and music.  Musicians have better encoding of pitch information in speech, which is important for understanding what is being said, as well as the emotional content of speech. (Musacchia et al.,2007; Strait et al., 2009)
  • Musicians are better able to filter away background noise, and so can better encode and understand speech in the presence of background noise (Parbery-Clark et al., 2009)
  • Adults who had musical training as a child (but did not necessarily continue playing music as an adult) still have better brainstem responses to sound.  This indicates that changes in the brain in response to early musical training are long-lasting.(Skoe and Kraus, 2012)
  • Musical training protects against the normal age-related decline in auditory processing.  Older musicians show the same accurate processing of sounds as young people.  This effect of musical training is not limited to professional or life-long-musicians.  Even a few years of musical training during childhood had a protective effect on auditory processing in seniors, even 50 years later.  (Parbery-Clark et al., 2012; White-Schwoch et al., 2013)
  • University students with musical training before the age of 12 had better verbal memory  than people with no musical training (Chan et al., 1998)
  • Children  with at least 3 years of musical training performed better on vocabulary tests than children with no musical training.There was a positive correlation between duration of musical study and performance on test; in other words, the longer the child had studied music, the more likely she was to do well on the vocabulary test. (Forgeard et al., 2008)
  • A six-month study on 8-year-olds found that children given music lessons improved their reading abilities more than children given painting lessons (Moreno et al., 2009).
  • In 4- and 5-year-old children, music skills were found to correlate with phonological awareness and reading development. “Music perception appears to tap auditory mechanisms related to reading”. (Anvari et al., 2002)
  • In university students, the ability to recognize differences in pitch contour (shape of a melody) correlated with reading ability.  “Acoustic perception constrains the development of phonological skill and literacy acquisition”. (Foxton et al., 2003)
  • Improvements in verbal skills were seen in 4- to 6-year old children after only 20 days of musical training using a computer program.  (Moreno et al., 2011)
Musical training leads to increased spatial and mathematical abilities:

  • Orchestra musicians perform better than non-musicians on a task of 3-D mental rotation.  Imaging studies showed this mental task was accompanied by activation in Broca’s area in addition to the regular activation in visuospatial areas of the brain. (Sluming et al, 2007)
  • Children given 6 months of piano training had improved spatial-temporal reasoning abilities and were faster at learning proportional math concepts taught in a video-game format. ( Graziano et al.,1999)
  • Cheek and Smith (1999) report that grade 8 students who have had at least 2 years of private music training score better on the mathematics portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills than students with no private music training.  In addition, they found that students whose lessons were on a keyboard instrument have better math skills than those whose music lessons were not keyboard related. 
  • Musicians doing mental math use different parts of the brain than non-musicians:  there is more activation in the left fusiform gyrus (used for shape processing) and the left prefrontal cortex (which is the site for working memory). (Schmidthorst and Holland, 2004)

Musical training leads to improvements in executive function:  attention, discipline, and working memory:

  • Children given twenty sessions of musical training over a month showed an improvement on an executive function task testing working memory and response inhibition. (Moreno et al., 2011)
  • Young adults who were musical performers showed better performance than non-musicians on two tasks measuring executive function. (Bialystok and Depape, 2009)
  • Professional musicians perform better than amateurs on the Stroop test, a measure of selective attention and cognitive flexibility. (Travis, 2011)
  • Musical training leads to improvements in working memory (Bergman Nutley et al., 2013)
  • Musical training can be used to offset the decline in executive function that can occur with aging.  Seniors given six months of piano lessons had significantly improved scores on executive function test of planning and working memory.  (Bugos et al., 2007)

Musical training has a small effect in increasing overall IQ:

  • A year-long study in Toronto showed that children who were given musical training had a slightly greater increase in overall IQ compared children who were not given music lessons. (Schellenberg, 2004) 
  • High school students studying music have better grades in virtually all subjects (Cabanac et al., 2013)

Making music improves mood, decreases levels of stress hormones, and boosts the immune system:

  • Choir singers, after rehearsing, have increased levels of immune system markers, decreased levels of stress hormones, and better mood. (Beck et al., 2000; Kreutz et al., 2004)
  • Singers after a singing lesson report feeling more joyful, relaxed and energetic. (Grape et al., 2003)
  • Drumming therapy decreases blood levels of stress indicators and increases immune system indicators (Bittmann et al., 2001)
  • Musically-trained university students had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol before a math exam compared to non-musician students, suggesting that musically-trained students more emotionally stable. (Laohawattanakun et al., 2011) 
  • Non-musicians showed improved mood (using a questionnaire) after singing in a group for 30 minutes(Unwin et al., 2002)

Anvari, S.H., Trainor, L.J., Woodside, J., and Levy, B.A. (2002). Relations among musical skills, phonological processing, and early reading ability in preschool children. J Exp Child Psychol 83, 111–130.
Beck, R.J., Cesario, T.C., Yousefi, A., and Enamoto, H. (2000). Choral Singing, Performance Perception, and Immune System Changes in Salivary Immunoglobulin A and Cortisol. Music Perception 18, 87–106.
Bergman Nutley, S., Darki, F., and Klingberg, T. (2014). Music practice is associated with development of working memory during childhood and adolescence. Front Hum Neurosci 7, 926.
Bialystok, E., and Depape, A.-M. (2009). Musical expertise, bilingualism, and executive functioning. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 35, 565–574.
Bittman, B.B., Berk, L.S., Felten, D.L., Westengard, J., Simonton, O.C., Pappas, J., and Ninehouser, M. (2001). Composite effects of group drumming music therapy on modulation of neuroendocrine-immune parameters in normal subjects. Altern Ther Health Med 7, 38–47.
Bugos, J.A., Perlstein, W.M., McCrae, C.S., Brophy, T.S., and Bedenbaugh, P.H. (2007). Individualized Piano Instruction enhances executive functioning and working memory in older adults. Aging & Mental Health 11, 464–471.
Cabanac, A., Perlovsky, L., Bonniot-Cabanac, M.-C., and Cabanac, M. (2013). Music and academic performance. Behavioural Brain Research 256, 257–260.
Chan, A.S., Ho, Y.C., and Cheung, M.C. (1998). Music training improves verbal memory. Nature 396, 128.
Cheek, J.M., and Smith, L.R. (1999). Music training and mathematics achievement. Adolescence 34, 759–761.
Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Norton, A., and Schlaug, G. (2008). Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. PLoS ONE 3, e3566.
Foxton, J.M., Talcott, J.B., Witton, C., Brace, H., McIntyre, F., and Griffiths, T.D. (2003). Reading skills are related to global, but not local, acoustic pattern perception. Nat. Neurosci 6, 343–344.
Grape, C., Sandgren, M., Hansson, L.-O., Ericson, M., and Theorell, T. (2003). Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 38, 65–74.
Graziano, A.B., Peterson, M., and Shaw, G.L. (1999). Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training. Neurol. Res. 21, 139–152.
Hyde, K.L., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A.C., and Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical training shapes structural brain development. J. Neurosci 29, 3019–3025.
Kreutz, G., Bongard, S., Rohrmann, S., Hodapp, V., and Grebe, D. (2004). Effects of choir singing or listening on secretory immunoglobulin A, cortisol, and emotional state. J Behav Med 27, 623–635.
Laohawattanakun, J., Chearskul, S., Dumrongphol, H., Jutapakdeegul, N., Yensukjai, J., Khumphan, N., Niltiean, S., and Thangnipon, W. (2011). Influence of music training on academic examination-induced stress in Thai adolescents. Neurosci. Lett. 487, 310–312.
Moreno, S., Marques, C., Santos, A., Santos, M., Castro, S.L., and Besson, M. (2009). Musical training influences linguistic abilities in 8-year-old children: more evidence for brain plasticity. Cereb. Cortex 19, 712–723.
Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E.G., Cepeda, N.J., and Chau, T. (2011). Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function. Psychological Science 22, 1425–1433.
Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E., and Kraus, N. (2007). Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A 104, 15894–15898.
Parbery-Clark, A., Skoe, E., and Kraus, N. (2009). Musical experience limits the degradative effects of background noise on the neural processing of sound. J. Neurosci 29, 14100–14107.
Parbery-Clark, A., Anderson, S., Hittner, E., and Kraus, N. (2012). Musical experience offsets age-related delays in neural timing. Neurobiology of Aging.
Schellenberg, E.G. (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychol Sci 15, 511–514.
Schmithorst, V.J., and Holland, S.K. (2004). The effect of musical training on the neural correlates of math processing: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study in humans. Neurosci. Lett 354, 193–196.
Skoe, E., and Kraus, N. (2012). A little goes a long way: how the adult brain is shaped by musical training in childhood. J. Neurosci. 32, 11507–11510.
Sluming, V., Brooks, J., Howard, M., Downes, J.J., and Roberts, N. (2007). Broca’s area supports enhanced visuospatial cognition in orchestral musicians. J. Neurosci 27, 3799–3806.
Strait, D.L., Kraus, N., Skoe, E., and Ashley, R. (2009). Musical experience and neural efficiency: effects of training on subcortical processing of vocal expressions of emotion. Eur. J. Neurosci 29, 661–668.
White-Schwoch, T., Carr, K.W., Anderson, S., Strait, D.L., and Kraus, N. (2013). Older adults benefit from music training early in life: biological evidence for long-term training-driven plasticity. J. Neurosci. 33, 17667–17674.

Friday 4 April 2014

Turn Off the Music?

 Your teenager is studying in her bedroom, preparing for tomorrow’s English test.  Books are strewn everywhere, music is blaring.  Her head bops along in time to the tune.  You barge in and start haranguing her:  “How can you study with such loud music?  Surely it’s distracting you.  And studying English too!  The words of the music are interfering with your studying!”

The idea that the music is impeding her studying makes sense to most people.  The music is yet another source of information entering the teenager’s brain, and so will be distracting.  And vocal music will be especially distracting because the words in the songs will be competing for mental space with the words that she is supposed to be studying.  But from the teenager’s point of view, the music is not distracting; instead, it helps her focus on her work.

Who is right? Does background music during studying help or hinder?  And does it matter whether the music is vocal or instrumental?   

These questions were addressed in a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Zurich.  They studied almost 200 people who learned lists of words while listening to either vocal music, instrumental music, or no music.  The people were shown fifty words, one at a time, on a screen, and then had to write down as many words as they remembered.  This was repeated several times, using the same words each time.  The people also were tested to see how many words they could recall thirty minutes later and then again two weeks later.  The researchers found that listening to music didn’t seem to have any effect in the long-term learning of the words.  They did find a small detrimental effect of listening to vocal music during the first few presentations of the words:  the vocal music group recalled slightly fewer words on the first few trials.  This effect was not seen for recall at later times.  After the initial learning, the words were equally well recalled regardless of whether the people had been listening to music or not.  

Previous studies looking at the effects of background music on learning have given mixed results.  A number of studies, especially those using classical music, have shown that people learn better if background music is played, because it makes them more relaxed and focused.  Other studies have found that background music is distracting. Lutz Jäncke, the lead author of this current study, had previously found that when people try to study while listening to music, their brains were more active, presumably because they have to work harder to tune out the music.  He suggests that the current results show that people are able to effectively ignore the music, and that is why it has no effect on their learning.

So should you harass your teenager to turn down the music while they’re studying?  My vote is no.  Everyone has their own preferences about listening to music while studying.  Personally, I do find vocal music to be distracting, and always put on quiet classical music to study or write.  Okay, I’ll admit that my preferred background music is always Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (the 1981 recording), on repeat. It’s what works for me, my personal voodoo.  So let your teenager decide for herself if the music is distracting or not.  Research says the music is probably not going to interfere with her learning.


Jäncke, L., Brügger, E., Brummer, M., Scherrer, S., and Alahmadi, N. (2014). Verbal learning in the context of background music: no influence of vocals and instrumentals on verbal learning. Behav Brain Funct 10, 10.