For most people music is an enjoyable, although momentary, form of entertainment. But for those who seriously practiced a musical instrument when they were young, perhaps when they played in a school orchestra or even a rock band, the musical experience can be something more. Recent research shows that a strong correlation exists between musical training for children and certain other mental abilities.
The research was discussed at a session at a recent gathering of acoustics experts in Austin, Texas.
Laurel Trainor, director of the Institute for Music and the Mind at McMaster University in West Hamilton, Ontario, and colleagues compared preschool children who had taken music lessons with those who did not. Those with some training showed larger brain responses on a number of sound recognition tests given to the children. Her research indicated that musical training appears to modify the brain’s auditory cortex.
Can larger claims be made for the influence on the brain of musical training? Does training change thinking or cognition in general?
Trainor again says yes. Even a year or two of music training leads to enhanced levels of memory and attention when measured by the same type of tests that monitor electrical and magnetic impulses in the brain.
“We therefore hypothesize that musical training (but not necessarily passive listening to music) affects attention and memory, which provides a mechanism whereby musical training might lead to better learning across a number of domains,” Trainor said.
Trainor suggested that the reason for this is that the motor and listening skills needed to play an instrument in concert with other people appears to heavily involve attention, memory and the ability to inhibit actions. Merely listening passively to music to Mozart — or any other composer — does not produce the same changes in attention and memory.