Hyde, K. L., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A. & Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(10), 3019-3025. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5118-08.2009.
The purpose of this study was to examine brain structure changes and correlated musical behaviour in two groups of children. The "instrumental" group was made up of 15 children (mean age: 6.32 years) and the "control" group was made up of 16 children (mean age: 5.9 years). For 15 months, the instrumental group received half-hour weekly keyboard lessons while the control group participated in a weekly 40-minute group music class that involved singing and playing with drums and bells. Before and after the 15-month period, MRI scans were done and each child was given music behaviour tests. These tests consisted of
Near-transfer measures (These test skills that are directly related to music participation.)
a) a 4-finger motor skill test for each hand
b) a melodic and rhythmic discrimination test
Far-transfer measures (These test skills that are further removed from music participation.)
a) object assembly test
b) block design test
c) vocabulary test
Researchers found that the students in the instrumental group experienced greater structural changes in motor-related areas of the brain. This was correlated and predicted by improvements in left-hand motor skills. Changes in the right auditory area were correlated and predicted by improvements in melodic/rhythmic discrimination. No advantage was gained by the instrumental group over the control group in the far-transfer skills. These findings support results of tests on musicians and non-musicians.
They also found structural changes in the brain outside of the motor and auditory areas. Researchers were particularly excited by changes observed in the left posterior pericingulate region, since this is in the vicinity of Brodmann area 31, which is involved in the integration of visual information and the limbic system. Musical notation and its emotional interpretation is an example of this type of integration.
In reading this study, I did wonder, "So what if the brain can change in just 15 months?" Will this make a difference in how I do things now? In what I choose to do? How I choose to teach?
To be honest, I don’t know, but perhaps it ought to. There are already many reasons, not specifically conceived as brain development reasons, why I make decisions as it is. In particular, my reasons for choosing to focus on music-related issues did not come from a consideration of how it would change or help my brain, per se. But, admittedly, since the brain controls everything, I guess indirectly, this is what I’ve done. More precisely, it seems to me that music provides access to a part of people that other means don’t seem to get at the same way.
Indeed, this study shows that music changes the brain, even in areas that are just beyond the direct music/motor-related centres. In reading both Jourdain’s Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy and Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music, there appears to be much evidence that music involves the whole body, the whole brain. Even without such proof, I think most of us have experienced this.
What significance does that have? It seems to me, that development of the whole person in many different ways allows for a more varied way of thinking, and maybe a different way of looking at day-to-day problems---personally, socially, globally. Not that by listening to or playing music, we can look at, say, environmental issues, and solve them “musically”, but by developing as many parts of ourselves, our brains, as we can, we’ll have that many more tools at our disposal for collaborating on issues.*
It therefore interested me to see that the Toronto Star ran a series of articles about brain science-informed education: http://www.thestar.com/topic/Atkinson2009 as I had wondered for some time whether knowing what's happening in the brain could someday allow me to teach and play the piano more effectively by targeting areas known to be developed by certain tasks. A new movement is beginning to look at exactly how neuroscience can improve education.
An instinctive concern of mine in reading the summary of this study is that focus on brain structure and resultant behaviour may end up sidestepping other important factors in the learning environment. In this study, for example, factors such as teacher experience and interaction with each of the groups was not mentioned; neither was interaction between students in the group class. Perhaps the instrumental group developed more, in part, because of the one-on-one attention that was given.
Nonetheless, the idea that the brain remains malleable even into old age is such a remarkable discovery. It's a liberating thought that change is possible at every stage. It gives me a sense of motivation---there's always a reason to learn and to teach. The application of neuroscience to education, if done in dialogue and collaboration with those who influence and are influenced by the field---philosophers, educators, parents, students, etc.---, seems another important tool in improving the field.
*I should note that though far-transfer skill did not seem greatly affected in this study, the authors surmise that this may have been due to a) too short a duration for the effects to be seen, b) varying intensities of keyboard practice among the children), c) perhaps the sample being too small.