Music and the Brain

by Deborah Molodofsky and Shane Newmark Dolch

Twenty years of experience as both the head of Amadeus as well as a violin teacher, concert artist, and mother has taught me that children who study music excel in math, science, languages and creative thinking.

Albert Einstein, who began playing violin at age 6, said his discovery of the theory of relativity was “the result of musical perception.”

Stanford University’s Thomas Sudhof, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine last year, gave credit to his bassoon teacher.

James Wolfensohn, former World Bank president says “music functions as a ‘hidden  language’  which I would characterize as a universal language, one that enhances the ability to connect disparate or even contradictory ideas.”

 When a person plays music they are seeing patterns of notes, translating their patterns, and interpreting them…all simultaneously. The notes are a language, the patterns mathematical and the interpretation creative.

 Professor Nina Kraus, a neurobiologist at Northwestern spent two years tracking 44 6-to-9-year-olds in a program in LA that gave free instrument lessons to children, and then measured their brain activity.   She found a significant increase in the music students’ ability to process sounds, which is key to language, reading and focus in the classroom..  Academic results bore that out.

“A musician has to make sense of a complicated soundscape,” Professor Kraus says, which translates into an ability to understand language and to focus, for example, on what a teacher is saying in a noisy classroom.

 Music and Academic Organization

 Music can even help with core studying skills and getting in to college.

Learning music stimulates the executive function of the brain, helping kids to take responsibility for their studies and to be more organized with their time.

A study at the University of Toronto of 48 preschoolers published in 2011, found that verbal IQ increased after only 20 days of music training   – five times that of the control group who were given visual art lessons.  Lead  researcher Sylvain Moreno, found that music training enhanced the children’s “executive function” – their brains’ ability to plan, organize, strategize and solve problems. He found the effect in 90% of the children –  an unusually high rate.

Music, Brain Size and IQ

If  I were to tell you that music literally made your brain bigger and made you smarter, you would probably think I was being a shameless marketer of music education. So here are some studies from recent  articles by Joanne Lipman  published in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times  and from The Guardian so you can hear it from the scientists:

In a 2009 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers used an MRI to study the brains of 31 6-year-old children, before and after they took lessons on musical instruments for 15 months.  They found that the music students’ brains grew larger in the areas that control fine motor skills and hearing- and that students’ abilities in both those areas also improved.  The corpus callosum, which connects the left and right sides of the brain, grew as well.

Glenn Schellenberg, University of Toronto psychology professor, devised a 2004 study to assess musical study’s impact on IQ scores.  He randomly assigned 132 first-graders to keyboard, singing or drama lessons, or no lessons.  At the end of the school year, the IQ scores of the music students increased more than those of the other groups.

Music Training and Key Academic Skills

In 2013, the German Institute for Economic Research compared music training with sports, theater and dance in a study of 17-year-olds.  The research, based on a survey of more than 3,000 teens, found that those who had taken music lessons outside school scored significantly higher in terms of cognitive skills, had better grades and were more conscientious and ambitious than their peers.

The impact of music was more than twice that of the other activities – and held true regardless of the students’ socioeconomic background.

The other activities also had benefits;  kids in sports showed increased ambition, and those in theater and dance expressed more optimism.  But when it came to core academic skills, the impact of music training was much stronger.

This is not to say that kids shouldn’t do sports, theater or dance if that is what they love. The interesting thing about this study is that when it comes to core academics music was at the top of the list. In fact, many times, physical activity is a helpful precursor to music study helping a person to settle down and concentrate.

Music and Language

In an increasingly global economy many of us are seeing the need for our children to learn additional languages such as Chinese or Spanish. The sound of music trains our ears to speak other languages, while learning to read and play notes helps us with vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

Lisa Henriksson-Macaulay the author of The Music Miracle: The Scientific Secret to Unlocking Your Child’s Full Potential wrote an article “Are musicians better language learners?” in The Guardian on Feb 27th 2014 .

She is from Finland where the average person speaks three to five languages. She was curious to see if  Finland’s custom of early music training where even babies and toddlers learn core music skills through songs and games, might have an influence on their ability to speak foreign languages.

As music training boosts all the language-related networks in the brain, she expected it to be beneficial in the acquisition of foreign languages.

Reading through many research papers from peer-reviewed scientific journals, she discovered that, in her words,  “music training is the only proven method to boost the full intellectual, linguistic and emotional capacity of a child.”

According to the studies she read, just one hour a week of learning music is enough to fully benefit the brain – including an all-round boost in language skills and a significant increase in IQ.

So if you worry about the burden of time and practice for your family, this is great news!

Music training plays a key role in the development of a foreign language in its grammar, colloquialisms and vocabulary. One recent study found that when children aged nine and under were taught music for just one hour a week, they exhibited a higher ability to learn both the grammar and the pronunciation of foreign languages, compared to their classmates who had learned a different extracurricular activity.

So, what is music doing to our children’s brains that is so helpful with language?

Ms Hendriksson found studies that showed when “children start studying music before the age of seven, they develop bigger vocabularies, a better sense of grammar and a higher verbal IQ. These advantages benefit both the development of their mother tongue and the learning of foreign languages’. During these crucial years, the brain does 95% of it’s growth. Starting music training during this period also boosts the brain’s ability to process subtle differences between sounds and assist in the pronunciation of languages – and this gift lasts for life, as it has been found that adults who had musical training in childhood still retain this ability to learn foreign languages quicker and more efficiently than adults who did not have early childhood music training”

Just by adding music to your child’s repertoire you will be helping them with their linguistic skills for life.

 Music and Success

 Multiple studies link music study to academic achievement.  But what is it about serious music training that seems to correlate with outsize success in other fields?

A recent New York Times article written by Joanne Lipman,  on Oct 12, 2013, asked this exact question.

She interviewed Condoleeza Rice, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, hedge fund star Bruce Kovner, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, Woody Allen, Chuck Todd (NBC Chief White House correspondent), Paula Zahn (TV broadcaster), Andrea Mitchell (NBC), Larry Page (co-founder of Google), Steven Spielberg, and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn.

Here is what she found:

Condoleeza Rice trained to be a concert pianist.

Alan Greenspan was a professional clarinet and sax player.

The hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is a pianist who took classes at Juilliard.

Paul Allen  began violin at 7 and took up guitar as a teen.

TV broadcaster Paula Zahn played cello.

NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd played French horn and attended college on music scholarships.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell trained to become a professional violinist.

Both billionaire co-founder of Microsoft Paul Allen and Larry Page, co-founder of Google, played sax in high school.

Steven Spielberg is a clarinetist and son of a pianist.

And Former World Bank president James Wolfenson has played cello at Carnegie Hall.

So, what do they have to say about the Music and Success Connection?

 Alan Greenspan says:   “It’s not a coincidence (that you’ll find musicians at the top of almost any industry),” ” I can tell you as a statistician that the probability that this is mere chance is extremely small.  That’s all that you can judge about the facts.  The crucial question is, why does the connection exist?”

Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft had this answer,  “Music reinforces your confidence and the ability to create.   Something is pushing you to look beyond what currently exists and express yourself in a new way”.

Chuck Todd, chief White House correspondent who attended college on a music scholarship says:  There is a connection between years of practice and competition and what he calls the “drive for perfection.”

He makes the connection between perfecting a musical phrase and the attention to detail that is at the core of the news reports that have made him so successful.

“I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead”, he says,” is by outworking other people.  It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time” and it translates into “working on something over and over, or double-checking or triple-checking”.

He concludes, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough it does get better.  You see the results.”

Roger McNamee, whose Elevation Parters is known for its early investment in Facebook, “music and technology have converged.  He says musicians and top professionals share “the almost desperate need to dive deep.”  This capacity to strive for perfection seems to unite top performers in music and other fields.

The connection between math and music I mentioned earlier resonates with Bruce Kovner, founder of the hedge fund Caxton Associates and chairman of the board of Juilliard.  He sees similarities between his piano playing and investing strategy; as he says, both “relate to pattern recognition, and some people extend these paradigms across different senses.”

Apple account advertising executive Steve Hayden credits his background as a cellist for his most famous Apple “1984” commercial.  He draws a strong connection between the social skills fostered by his music studies and his career success. He believes that his performance background helps him work collaboratively and says “Ensemble playing trains you, quite literally, to play well with others, to know when to solo and when to follow”.

The Pleasure of Music and Enriching Lives

Many people are put off studying music because all this talk of “practice, practice, practice, can seem daunting and intimidating. But this is just one side of the coin…so speak.

Having music in your life and household is enriching and rewarding.

Much like the “Mindfulness Practice” which is being introduced ion our schools today, playing for the sheer pleasure of the moment is great for our brains too.

James Wolfensohn, former World Bank president, who began cello as an adult, says:  Music provides balance.  You aren’t trying to win any races or bet the lead or this or that.  You’re enjoying it because of the satisfaction and joy you get out of it.”

Woody Allen, sees music as a diversion, unconnected to his day job.    Still, he practices the clarinet at least half an hour every day.  He performs regularly with his New Orleans jazz band.  “I never thought I would be playing in concert halls of the world to 5,000, 6,000 people,” he said.  “I will say, quite unexpectedly, it enriched my life tremendously.”

These high achievers say music has sharpened collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas.  “Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person,” says Ms. Lipman.  “But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view – and to take pleasure in listening.”



Liisa Henriksson-Macaulay is the author of  The Music Miracle: The Scientific Secret to Unlocking Your Child’s Full Potential.

New York Times, October 12, 2013. Joanne Lipman – Is Music the Key to Success?

The Guardian, Thursday 27 February 2014. Liisa Henriksson-Macaulay – Are Musicians better Language learners?

The Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2014 Joanne Lipman A Musical Fix for US Schools.