The Mozart Effect: This is Your Child’s Brain on Music
For years, proponents of musical training have argued that listening to music can somehow influence a child’s brain development. At one point, there was a fad for playing music to babies in the womb, with the hope that doing so might somehow make little Susie or Johnny smarter, better at math, or more likely to excel in school down the road. Some of those claims appear to have been overblown or unfounded. But that’s not to say music has no impact on behavioral or brain development.
On the contrary, the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind to date has now concluded that learning to play a musical instrument in childhood is, in fact, linked to significant improvements in other important aspects of development. For example, according to the study, published recently in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, musical training helps children focus their attention, control their emotions, and diminish their anxiety levels.
Of course, the researchers also found what anyone would expect: that learning to play a musical instrument is clearly linked to significant changes in the motor cortex. That’s the part of the brain responsible for fine motor skills, such as moving the fingers in complex rhythms and patterns, etc., to evoke musical notes from a given instrument. But they also found changes in behavior-regulating areas of the brain among young musicians.
Music practice altered areas of the brain related to "executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future," the authors wrote. A child's musical training was also correlated with cortical thickness in “brain areas that play a critical role in inhibitory control, as well as aspects of emotion processing.”
All of which suggests that musical education may be a more positive way to help prevent negative behaviors that are commonly treated only after problems crop up, usually with powerful drugs. Imagine a world where, rather than medicating “hyperactive” children, we put violins in their hands instead. Or, instead of prescribing potent anti-depressant drugs, we prescribed piano lessons. Sadly, less than one-quarter of U.S. high school students take extracurricular lessons in music.
James Hudziak, M.D. et al. Cortical Thickness Maturation and Duration of Music Training: Health-Promoting Activities Shape Brain Development. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, December 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2014.06.015 show