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Learning: Music and the Mind

By Ryan Lambert -- Published May 23, 2014

This blog post is completely different than my usual; I'm bringing back a paper I wrote during my junior year of high school. I remember when I was researching for this paper I had a hard time finding credible sources because so little research had been done. Over a decade later there has been very little new research done, and budgets to support music in public school are being cut drastically. (Disclaimer: I did not edit the typos I now see, so don't be a hater)

Music: Its Effect on the Human Mind

Music has long been considered therapeutic and a way to alleviate stress. It had been speculated that music had some effect on the human brain but until recently there had been no scientific proof that there was any effect on the brain at all. "The scientific study of music has been terribly neglected." (Dr. Norman M. Weinberger) In 1997 Dr. Gordon Shaw and Dr. Frances Rouscher started the M.I.N.D. (Music Intelligence Neural Development) Institute. The M.I.N.D. Institute has done the leading research in the study of the effects of music on the human brain.

1991, when Xiaodan Lang and Gordon Shaw proposed that early musical training may help the brain in higher cognitive functions, was when the first major research was done on this subject. By 1995, the effects of Mozart's music had been confirmed and it was suspected that for the best results from music, it needs to have a great complexity to it. In 1997 the long-term enhancements in preschoolers spatial-temporal reasoning was confirmed. By 2000, results from second graders were being studied with promising results. ("Music Making")

It is noticeable from infancy that music, to an extent, effects the human brain. A three month old baby will respond/move to an overhead crib mobile when music is played. When a ribbon was tied to the babies ankle, it quickly learned that it could start the music up by simply kicking, which shows that music may help with the retrieval of information. (Music, Children)

It has been shown that a four month old baby has the ability to recognize music like adults can. They are able to detect rhythm and melodic contour. It is common for an infant to smile when a perfect fourth or fifth (a "good" sounding tone) is played but tend to cringe or frown when a dissonant tone is played. A study done on eight-month-old babies also showed that babies can recognize changes in music from the early stages of life. (Chang)

Up to the age of six many of the 100 billion original neuronsin a child's brain are still unconnected or loosely connected to each other. Each experience that the child has, helps to strengthen the neurons in the brain. The neurons that go unused long enough just waste away. Going through piano training in early stages of life may help the child's abstract reasoning, which is an important ability in advanced math classes and in science, by helping to strengthen the neurons in the brain. Exposing young children to classical music, especially Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, also help to develop the child's brain. (Viadero)

In a study that was done on 78 preschoolers, ages ranging from three to five, it was shown that taking piano lessons significantly increased the ability to put together a puzzle of a camle. The preschoolers were divided into 4 groups: One group received private 12-15 minute piano lessons, the second group received 30 minute singing lessons, the third group received training on computers and the fourth grou preceived no special instruction. They took tests that measured spatial abilities at both the beginning of the experiment and six to eight months after the start of the experiment. The group that received the piano lessons scored up to 34% higher on the tests then the other students. (Viadero)

In a test done with second graders, students who received piano instructions for four months scored 15-41% higher on a test with fractions and ratios than the other students. The students with the piano training also scored as well as fourth graders who have not received any piano instruction. "They just shoot ahead in math. This can't be explained by social effects or attention alone. There is something specific about music and math." (Martin Gardiner)

It has also been shown that in professional musicians who had started musical training (especially piano) before age seven have a larger corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is critical for coordinating quick bi-manual movements. It links the right half of the brain and the left half of the brain together. The right half generally deals with the emotions and the left half generally deals with cognition. Musicians must use both halves to perfect their music because there is so much technique and emotion involved in getting the right feel for the music. (Music Making)

A study that was performed on 84 college students shows that merely listening to a Mozart piano sonata (Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major) for ten minutes helps to temporarily improve the student's spatial-temporal reasoning skills (the ability to form mental images from physical objects and to see patterns in space in time). The effects seem to last around an hour but it may be true that the more often that you listen to Mozart (or certain other classical composers, whose music have enough complexity to it), the longer and more dramatically it effects you. (Viadero)

It appears that along with math and science abilities, there is also a direct connection between active music making and better language, overall school improvements, and better social behavior. Shawn E. Mueske, a Mankato State University graduate, did a study to determine how people's attitudes were affected by listening to background music. He had a control group do a biology lab without any music and a group who did the same lab but had popular soft rock softly playing in the background. The study showed that neither the attitude nor the achievement of either group was better but the group who was listening to music had a significant decrease in the time spent in the lab. (Olson)

Just how far back does music go? Is it possible that music has been a part of human culture long enough that there is a genetic "need" for music? There is evidence that points to the idea that there may have never been a human culture that has existed without music of some sort or another. Music might even predate the beginnings of language and could have been an early form of language. Instruments made from animal bones have been dated back to 53,000 years ago, which is twice as old as the oldest cave paintings found. (Leutwyler)

It could be said that the reason that all cultures have the same basics for their music because we all came from the origins and spread out, but whales and birds also have a lot in common with human music. For example: Humback whales use similar rhythms, keep musical phrases short, keep adjacent notes within a scale, sing in key, have repeating refrains that rhyme, and tend to keep songs around the same length of our songs (which points out that they may possibly have about the same attention span). It's amazing that human and whale music have so much in common since our evolutionary paths have not intersected for 60 million years. (Leutwyler)

There is so much information out there showing the positive effects that music has on the human brain and yet, there is still so much more to learn. With all of the signs pointing down a promising road, there's all the more reason to continue to research music, and the effects it has on people's attitudes, moods, feelings, abstract thinking and the brain itself in general.

By Ryan Lambert
Published May 23, 2014
Last Updated May 23, 2014