This study examined the structural brain and behavioural changes in the developing brain in response to long-term music training and to specifically address the question of whether structural brain differences seen in adults are a product of “nature” or “nurture”. As part of an on going study, the researchers investigated the structural brain changes in relation to behavioural changes in young children who received 15 months of instrumental music (keyboard) training relative to a group of children who did not. The children who did not participate in keyboard lessons were still involved in singing and percussion lessons at their own schools.
The subjects performed a 4-finger motor sequencing test for the left and right hands assessing fine finger motor skills, music listening skills, and discrimination skills. 5 additional non-music tests were also administered as well as behavioural tests. MRI scans were also used to determine brain differences.
There were no behavourial or brain differences between the Instrumental and Control children at base line prior to any music training. Therefore the brain differences of adults who have musical training are more likely to be the product of intensive musical training rather than biological predispositions. The children who had instrumental music lessons showed greater behaviour improvement on the finger motor tasks but not the non-musical tasks. They did show an improvement in the right primary motor area, corpus callosum, and the right auditory processing areas. While these were somewhat expected, there were additional developments in various frontal areas and occipital regions.
These findings indicate that plasticity can occur in brain regions that control primary functions important for playing a musical instrument and also in brain regions that might be responsible for the kind of multimodal sensorimotor integration likely to underlie instrumental learning.
I found it interesting that the control non-instrumental group was still participating in singing and drumming in regular mainstream school. The sensory motor areas were only activated when the students learned keyboarding, so we as educators need to look at what these students do in their private piano studios that is different from what we do with the whole class when singing and drumming. For one thing, students are required to use both hands when playing keyboard while reading two different staves of music. So this lead me to wonder about using body percussion in class, where students read two different lines of rhythms and play them simultenously on their own body. Or if singing and playing a rhythm would have the same benefits of keyboarding.
We know that brain plasticity in children occurs in regions related to playing a musical instrument. This study shows us that developing the brain through musical long-term experience leads to adult brain differences and promotes higher motor-skill functions. Music educators should therefore incorporate activities that promote this development in their own classrooms, and this is why we should advocate music education in the classroom all through elementary school, even if there is no direct correlation between performance on music tests and performance on other behavioural tests.