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The Effects of Music Training on Children's Brain and Cognitive Development

Funded by the National Science Foundation
August 1, 2002-July 31, 2005

Co-Principal Investigators:

Gottfried Schlaug, M.D., Ph.D.
Department of Neurology
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Ellen Winner, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
Boston College

Research Associate:
Andrea Norton
New England Conservatory of Music

There are quite striking structural differences in the brains of professional musicians compared to non-musicians. For example, we have found that musicians have a larger than average corpus callosum (a fiber bundle connecting the left and right hemisphere of the brain) which may result in enhanced communication between the two halves of the brain. Furthermore, brain regions responsible for movement planning and movement execution as well as brain regions responsible for hearing were found to be larger in musicians compared with matched non-musician controls.

While we have established that musicians have different brain structures, a very important question about origins remains unanswered. We do not know whether these differences are caused by the intensive training musicians undergo, beginning typically in early childhood, or whether individuals who choose to study music in early childhood have "atypical" brain structures from birth, which predispose them to music. This is the first question that our study seeks to answer.

Research by several groups has also demonstrated that music training in children results in long-term enhanced visual-spatial reasoning (e.g., better performance in reconstructing or assembling individual pieces to form a single object). A few researchers have also found that music training may result in enhanced mathematical performance. However, the underlying brain basis of such enhancements is unknown. It is possible that changes in brain structure are induced by long-term learning and practicing a musical instrument. This is the second question that our study seeks to answer.

In this longitudinal study, we are studying the development of three groups of children over the course of three years. The children in the Instrumental Music Group are receiving individual instructions on either a string or keyboard instrument. The children in the Non-Instrumental Music Group are receiving a special in-school program of 30 minutes of music exposure four days a week beginning in kindergarten. The children in this group are not studying an instrument. The children in the Basic Music Group are receiving the basic amount of music exposure that children receive in typical American public schools - one class per week.

Children who enroll in our study are between 5-7 years of age. They are given a battery of cognitive tests at the very beginning of their music program, and they are tested again at the end of Years 1, 2 and 3. The cognitive battery consists of tests of spatial, mathematical, verbal ability, as well as tests of music learning. Parents are provided with a practice notebook in which they record their child's daily amount of music practice (for those in the Instrumental group) or their child's daily amount of other types of activities that like music require discipline and motivation (e.g., athletics, chess).

In addition, once at each testing time children also receive a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan while they are performing a music task. MRIs are completely safe and non-invasive tests that involve no radiation. The MRIs are administered at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. At the end of the MRI session, children take home full color images of their brains at work.

At the completion of this study, we will have answers to the following questions:

" Does learning to play a musical instrument have a positive effect on brain development and if so what develops differently?

" Do children who seek out musical training start out with brain structures that are different from those who do not plan to learn a musical instrument?

" Does learning to play a musical instrument have a positive influence on performance of spatial, mathematical, and/or verbal reasoning tests? And is such improvement related to how much music is actually learned (as measured by music achievement tests)?

" How much music exposure is enough to cause any of the above outcomes? Must the child study a musical instrument and practice daily? Does 30 minutes of music education four times a week over three years but without instrumental training have the same effect? Can any of these effects be detected in children who have only the basic amount of music that our schools typically offer?

We hope very much that you might consider helping to support this project. One of us will telephone you in a few days to see whether it might be possible to make an appointment to come and talk to you. We hope that you will agree to meet with us and learn more about our research.


Research showing that professional musicians have atypical brains
Schlaug G, J?ncke L, Huang Y, Steinmetz H. In vivo evidence of structural brain asymmetry in musicians. Science 1995;267:699-671.
Schlaug G, J?ncke L, Huang Y, Steinmetz H. Musical ability [letter]. Science 1995;268:621-622.
Steinmetz H, Staiger JF, Schlaug G, Huang Y, J?ncke L. Corpus callosum and brain volume in women and men. NeuroReport 1995;6:1002-1004.
Schlaug G, J?ncke L, Huang Y, Staiger JF, Steinmetz H. Increased corpus callosum size in musicians. Neuropsychologia 1995;33:1047-1055.
J?ncke L, Schlaug G, Steinmetz H. Hand skill asymmetry in professional musicians. Brain and Cognition 1997;34:424-432.
Amunts K, Schlaug G, J?ncke L, Steinmetz H, Schleicher A, Dabringhaus A, Zilles K. Motor cortex and hand motor skills: structural compliance in the human brain. Human Brain Mapping 1997;5: 206-215.
Keenan JP, Halpern AR, Thangaraj V, Chen C, Edelman RR, Schlaug G. Absolute pitch and planum temporale. Neuroimage 2001;14:1402-1408.
Schlaug G. The brain of musicians: A model for functional and structural plasticity. Ann NY Acad Sci 2001;930: 281-299.

Research examining whether listening to music improves adults' spatial reasoning
Hetland, L. (2000). Listening to music enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: Evidence for the "Mozart Effect." Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34 (3-4), 105-148.

Research examining whether learning to play music improves spatial reasoning
Hetland, L. (2000). Learning to make music enhances spatial reasoning. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34 (3-4), 179-238.

Costa-Giomi, E. (1999). The effects of three years of piano instruction on children's cognitive development. Journal of Research in Music Education, 47 (5), 198-212.

Rauscher, R., Shaw, G., Sevine, L., Wright, E., Dennis, W., & Newcomb, R. (1997). Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children's spatial-temporal reasoning. Neurological Research, 19, (1) 2-7.

Research examining whether learning to play music improves mathematical reasoning
Vaughn, K. (2000). Music and mathematics: Modest support for the oft-claimed relationship. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34 (3-4), 149-166.

Research examining whether studying the arts improves school performance
Winner, E., & Hetland, L. (2000). The arts and academic achievement: What the evidence shows. Double Issue of Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34 (3-4), Fall/Winter, 2000.

Winner, E., & Cooper, M. (2000). Mute those claims: No evidence (yet) for a causal link between arts study and academic achievement. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34 (3-4), 11-75.


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