An Introduction to Researching Music and the Brain

Mike Lawson • Features • October 12, 2012

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Part 1: An Introduction to Researching Music and the Brain


Two pioneers in the field of researching how music impacts the brain are Dr. Nina Kraus and Dr. Aniruddh Patel. SBO recently spoke with these two scientists to discuss their work and its broad implications on music education.

Nina Kraus plays the electric guitar, some bass, and a bit of drums. She is also a professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University, where she heads the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

“There’s so much work to be done,” says Kraus. “I don’t need to tell music educators how important music is, not only for the sake of music but also for helping kids become better learners. However, there aren’t a lot of visible scientific outcomes in education in general, and there aren’t a lot of ironclad results that show the effect that the musical experience has on the nervous system. The work that my lab does, along with the work of others in the field, can hopefully provide some of the evidence that the educators and policy makers can use to get more resources for more music.”

Kraus’s studies of the impact that music has on various cognitive abilities have been published in some of the world’s leading scientific journals. This summer, Kraus published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience titled “A Little Goes A Long Way,” touting the lasting brain benefits of even a relatively small amount of musical study. In that experiment, which received significantf media attention, Kraus measured the brain’s response to sound among 45 students at Northwestern University and determined that people with even a small amount of musical training were “better at processing sound” than those with no musical training.

“Historically, the work that has been done in this field is with people who have continued to play music throughout their lives,” says Kraus. “And they don’t have to be professional musicians, they can be hacks like me, but they have continuously played music. What that study asked was, ‘What about the more common scenario, which is that kids play music for a while, take lessons for a couple of years, and then stop?’ The bottom line of that study is that if people have had up to about five years of musical experience, their nervous systems respond and show some of the benefits that you see in people who have continued to play music. There is every indication – just like with many subjects we study in school, where we take classes in them and learn about them and then we may not do those particular tasks and problems again in our life – that we’ve been taught things that will still be helpful to us in some way or another throughout our lives.”

One of the keys to following this research is the idea that the brain is malleable and develops based on how it is used. “What really interests me are the kind of basic fundamental changes that happen in the nervous system because of how we spend a lot of our time,” Kraus affirms. “I’m interested in long-term and life-long real pervasive changes in the nervous system. So if you spend a lot of time speaking another language or studying a musical instrument, you are going to change your nervous system in measurable ways. When we put our scalp electrodes on people and measure the electrical responses that happen to sound, I can look at the responses to a speech sound and basically tell whether or not they’ve had musical training.”

These measurable differences hold the key to determining exactly what the impact is that music has on the brain.


Elements of Sound

One of the reasons that this field of study so complex is that music is made up of many different elements that all activate unique areas within the brain. Musical sounds and speech sounds can be broken into three distinct segments: the fundamental frequency, which is important for what note you’re playing or the various pitches of a person’s voice; the harmonics, which is important for timbre; and then the timing information or rhythm. Timing “is where it gets really cool for the nerdy signal people like me,” says Kraus. “We’re talking about timing on the order of not fractions of seconds, but fractions of milliseconds. It is timing on fractions of milliseconds that is absolutely essential to what a drummer does. It is also timing on fractions of a millisecond that distinguishes a B from a D. You can see how if the nervous system is really good at picking up on these timing elements that are just inherently a part of sound, that’s going to be one of the dimensions that we would expect – and in fact do see – that are enhanced in people that have musical training.”

Scientifically speaking, this research is incredibly useful because neural responses are completely objective. “There is nothing that you can be doing or thinking that can change the way your nervous system is going to respond to a sound, at least in the context in which we often measure it,” says Kraus. “What is particular about our approach is that in the same way that a sound wave consists of pitch, timing, and timbre – the elements of sound – the brain response can also be analyzed. The reason that demonstration is powerful is that it shows that the responses we pick up actually resemble the sounds that were delivered to the person in order to elicit the responses. There’s a kind of transparency between the sound and the nervous system’s response to it.”

By reading these characteristics of how those elements are represented in the brainwave, Dr. Kraus asserts that she can actually tell with a reasonable degree of accuracy whether or not a person has had musical training. “If I just look at timing, I can expect a person of a certain age to have timing in a certain range for certain aspects in the response,” she clarifies. “I can say that someone might be faster, for example, especially if their representation of the timbre of the harmonics is enhanced. Those are telltale signs that the person has musical experience.”

To elaborate on how the responses might be read, when the brain receives auditory information, it creates an electrical impulse that’s similar to the pattern one might see in the visual representation of sound in programs like Garage Band and ProTools. The researchers measure the electrical response from the nervous system and record that pattern of voltages, which can be played back and translated into audio just like the electrical signal of amplified or electronic music. [For a detailed slideshow of how music impacts the brain, visit the Auditory Neuroscience Lab online at and click on the “Music” tab and then “Slideshow.”]


Music and Language

One of the first discoveries that Dr. Kraus’s team made involves the connection between music and language. “You might expect that the response to a musical sound would be enhanced to a person who plays music, but what about speech?” asks Kraus. “So given that speech also consists of the same elements, would a person who has experience with music also demonstrate the same enhanced responses to speech sounds? Well, they do.”

Much of the research of music’s impact on the brain relates to the domain of how music processes language. Kraus and her team have researched the ways in which auditory development through music study can benefit things like selective auditory skills, that is, distinguishing and hearing a particular sound in a noisy situation, an important skill for conversing in a busy restaurant, for example.

“Any time you present speech sounds to people, if you now embed those sounds in a bunch of background noise – whether that’s water running or a bunch of people yammering in the background – obviously the fidelity of the neural response to the target sound is going to be affected – degraded by the noise – which is why we have difficulty hearing in noisy situations,” says Dr. Kraus. “If you have musical training, the deleterious effects that noise has are reduced. If you look at a non-musician’s response in noise, it’s just shredded, whereas a musician’s response in the same background noise, you can hardly tell that there’s background noise there.”

This is a communications skill that is essential for hearing in a noisy classroom, which might have a ventilation system, traffic outside the window, chairs scraping, people turning pages of a book, and so on. “As a musician, you’re always picking out relevant sounds from a complicated soundscape. Musicians get very good at that,” says Kraus.

While this sounds like a learned skill, it’s important to keep in mind that this is an objective look at biological function. “Playing an instrument really does have a profound effect on how the nervous system processes sounds,” Kraus continues. “This is going to then impact communication skills like hearing in noise, learning to read, or even reading in general. You think of reading as a visual task, but in fact the brain matches sounds of letters to their images on a page, so you have to have a pretty good auditory representation of those sounds in order to read effectively. We find that people with musical experience have advantages in those kinds of skills. The other area that is really important is in auditory working memory and auditory attention.”

Auditory working memory is the skill of remembering something that you’ve just heard long enough to perform a brain function on it (understand it, wonder about it, react to it, and so on). To test this type of memory, Dr. Kraus will tell someone a bunch of numbers and then ask the subject to then, say, repeat them back backwards. Or she’ll give the person a bunch of nouns and then ask the subject to repeat only the nouns that are, for example, animal names that begin with the letter “t.” This requires that the person take something that he or she has heard, and then work with it, which is why it’s called “auditory working memory.”

“Musical study really strengthens your working memory,” she says. “That working memory is really important for any kind of learning – even just for remembering what the teacher said.”

Auditory attention, meanwhile, is more intuitive. In order to learn something, you have to know what to pay attention to. “It’s important not only for playing music, but also for making a better learner in general,” says Kraus.


A Mechanistic Approach to Measuring Impact

Dr. Ani Patel played bass clarinet in his high school band program. He went on to learn some guitar, and later studied classical guitar while in grad school. Meanwhile, he was also studying biology, and has since become one of the leading researchers in the field of neurobiology, as well as the author of Music, Language, and the Brain, a comprehensive exploration of the neurological processes of music and language cognition.

“There’s this growing evidence that when you study a musical instrument, it changes the way your brain processes sound, including the sound of speech, in ways that are good for you: better hearing in noise, better vocal emotion recognition, and so on,” says Patel. “Understanding how and why that happens at the mechanistic level of the brain is an open question, and a very important question for basic brain science and, ultimately, for application of this knowledge. That’s the information we need to convince people that these effects have a reasonable brain mechanism behind them so people who are interested in advocating for music can say not only that music has effects, but also understand how and why for convincing the larger community.

“Even though music seems like this highly specialized activity that is unlike anything else that we do, I think it has deep and important connections to many other brain functions, and language is an example of that. We use some of the similar brain processing mechanisms to process sounds of musical instruments and the sounds of speech, and there are interactions between these domains.”

Because music is so complex, it presents an extraordinary area of possible avenues for scientific study. Even something as simple as keeping a beat and moving in time with it activates a very broad network of brain functions involving hearing, motor planning, auditory memory, and imagery. “In terms of an activity that seems to integrate across many different regions of the brain, music is really powerful,” says Patel. “It also connects with strong emotions and to social interactions, if you’re pursuing music with other people. We’re just beginning to understand the significance of music from a neuroscientific perspective, and I think in the next 10 years it’s really going to become much clearer to us that this thing that we do has remarkable impact on many different brain functions. By understanding how that works, it’s going to transform our appreciation for this phenomenon, from a neuroscientific perspective.”


Challenges of Performing Studies

There are a number of challenges to performing scientific experiments in the area of brain development and music, including weeding out other possible influences and coming up with unassailable conclusions.

“A lot of the studies in this field are correlational,” Patel admits. “That is, you look at a bunch of musicians and compare them to non-musicians and then say, ‘Musicians are better at x, y, and z,’ but of course there’s the nagging question that maybe they started off that way, that they were born better at x, y, and z, and maybe that’s why they became musical in the first place. You really need to do randomized, controlled studies where you take people who are no different cognitively at the beginning and then train them, observing effects of music training as compared to other extracurricular activities, like painting or sports. Those activities can be valuable, too, but if you want to talk about the specific effects of music on the brain, you need to be able to show it by comparing it to other things that people could be doing.”

The other area of difficulty is simply finding a reliable and stable test group. It is really challenging to do anything longitudinal, where a single study follows the same people over a long span of time. It’s even hard to do them longer than the course of a single school year, because kids change schools and circumstances change. There are many logistical hurdles that make this field of research challenging.

The other real danger facing scientists is the lure of drawing conclusions based on premature claims or incomplete research. Inevitably, those will be overturned or will fizzle out, like what happened with the so-called Mozart Effect. “We’re at a stage now where we have the tools and we have the people to do the right kind of experiments to sift fantasy from reality and figure out what the real mechanisms are,” Patel says. “Ultimately we have to build a solid foundation that people can really stand on and say, ‘This is high quality scientific research. This is what we know and this is what we don’t know.’”


Optimal Age for Music  Training

One key question for educators and policy makers about creating lasting benefits through music education is determining the optimal age to begin music study. Again, while there are a number of correlational studies that suggest that earlier is better, this is still an area that is yet to be determined by hard scientific evidence.

“From a basic neuroscience standpoint, the brain is definitely more malleable in early childhood, in terms of how experience impacts the brain,” muses Patel. “Generally, the rule of thumb is ‘the earlier, the better’ if you want to have a lasting impact on the brain. It appears to be one of those things where we used to think that the brain was formed by a certain age and then all we did was lose neurons, but more recently we’ve learned that the brain is really malleable throughout life. Music seems to be one of those activities that, no matter at what age you pick it up, there are effects and impacts on the brain that are probably beneficial. Those impacts just may be stronger, the earlier you start. I can’t point to a specific age range that would be strongest, but at the moment I’d say that the younger people start, the more impactful it’s going to be.

“Not everyone is going to go on to be a musician, so if you’re thinking about policy, if you can get these kids in the first few years early in school, it might have a significant impact on their brain function,” Patel continues. “From a neurobiological standpoint, I don’t see why it wouldn’t. If you can structure the brain while it’s still developing rapidly in ways about processing sound, it could leave a lasting impact but then again, we really do need more studies to show that. It’s also possible that it’s like exercise: if you exercise as a child or play sports, but then later on give it up, you might still become really unfit. There’s no guarantee that just a little bit of exercise in childhood is going to make you a fit person forever. Is the brain like that? Or is the brain more likely to retain an imprint of that early experience?”

In any case, whether or not early exposure to music training has lasting residual effects is something that will be extremely hard to prove scientifically. “Think about it: what can you do, measure people’s brains and then wait 30 years and measure them again?” asks Patel. “Those may always be correlational studies, but that happens in epidemiology [the study of patterns of health and disease among a certain population] all the time. As long as you have a huge sample size and you can control for many other factors, you can sometimes start to sift out certain things and maybe we’ll get a chance to do that in the future.”


Determining Results

In order to make determinations about the impact of music, it takes a combination of behavioral and brain studies. Researchers like Dr. Patel and Dr. Kraus need to take people and administer training in musical skills versus other activities – doing nothing, other art forms, sports, and so on – and then measure their brain processing before and after. Measuring the brain can be done in terms of either the structure of the brain or the way that their brain responds to, say, sound and speech, before and after, as well as the subjects’ actual perceptual ability before and after. From there, relationships between the training can be tied to changes in the brain or the brain’s abilities.

“It’s sort of like detective work,” says Patel. “You’re establishing a chain of causality between something that’s been done through experience, to a measurable impact on the brain, to a measurable impact on behavior and ability. To go to the next level, we need to start doing these experimental studies treating music like a variable, just like you would with any other scientific study. If you think it’s having an impact, you do experiments where you either give it, withhold it, or compare it to something else in a measurable way.”


The Impact of Scientific Research

The end result of all this work could well be scientific proof of what so many people in music education already know: that music has demonstrable and provable beneficial impacts on a number of areas of cognitive and social development.

Dr. Patel notes that while he hopes that is the case, his scientific objectivity requires a degree of skepticism: “In 20 years, I really hope that we’ll have done a lot of these controlled experiments that I’m talking about and that there will be a strong case to be made by music educators and by others that music is having a measurable impact on cognition, and whatever other functions people are interested in – emotional regulation, attention – and that there are principled reasons why so many hours of music instruction per week or per day would be beneficial to the mental and cognitive health of the population. But as a scientist, you have to be constantly skeptical. You have to be aware that things that you wish to be true may not always be true, and you have to be willing to follow the data wherever it takes you. My hunch is that we’re going to find that music does have long lasting and beneficial impacts, and we’re going to understand how and why that works, but there may be things that we thought music helps but it doesn’t, or that it doesn’t seem to make that big a difference, or that you could get that benefit another way.”

Patel also stresses that society in general should pay attention to more than just the cognitive benefits of music, but also the social and emotional developmental impact of music on young people. There are many aspects of the benefits of music that might well be impossible to measure scientifically, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable. “Doing something positive in a group setting with others, playing a part in making a connection to the rich mental lives of composers by playing their music, those are all wonderful things – they’re just hard to measure empirically,” he says. “It’s tough to say, ‘Because my child plays music, he or she is a better team player’ or ‘knows how to work with others,’ or ‘is more sensitive to art and beauty.’ These are things that are hard to measure, but they’re also very important. I do wish we could figure out a way to measure them, too.”


How Educators Can Help

Because this field of study is so new, scientifically speaking, and so many different precise areas of inquiry and study are being developed, both Dr. Kraus and Dr. Patel implore music educators to become involved.

“We spend a lot of time researching the effects of musical experience on the nervous system,” says Kraus. “Educators spend a lot of time thinking about how to best teach music. I try to learn what I can about some of the challenges that music educators face, and my hope is that the people reading this article will find our website []. The best case scenario is that people will read this, be hungry for more, and try to inform themselves. I hope they look at the resources we have made available, as well as the biological approach we use to get a sense of what it is that we’re measuring. And know that these publications in which our studies appear are really the world’s best scientific journals – highly scrutinized and peer reviewed. Everything else is just talk, but if people are looking for outcomes, and they’re looking for ways to build an argument, use these publications!”

Ani Patel takes educator involvement even further, citing observations from music educators as a source of inspiration for further scientific study. “Stories and anecdotes about how musical training has had an impact on other things that the child was doing in his or her school performance are very interesting to me,” he says. “In some sense, a lot of what I research are things that music educators believe anyway. The idea that music training has an impact outside of music – that music training doesn’t just make you a better musician but also impacts your other abilities – I think that resonates with a lot of people in the music community. But what they’re lacking is the mechanistic knowledge of how that actually works in the brain. Figuring that out is something that I’d love to do. There are also going to be things that don’t pan out.

“One of the lessons from basic sciences is that, yes, there are these really important connections to be made between music and other cognitive skills, but now we’re at the point where we need to say exactly what those skills are that are impacted, and how they’re impacted in the brain. For educators, if you see an interesting connection out there between music and something else, let a researcher know because it could lead to something quite new and interesting – especially if it’s a connection that might be less obvious.”


Music and the Brain Part 2: Dalouge Smith of the SDYS

Music and the Brain Part 3: Music and Wellness


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