The other day my teacher asked my AP English class how many students were part of the school’s music program. As an active member of the school’s concert and jazz band, I raised my hand. To my surprise, around 2/3 of the students in my class also raised their hands. This piqued my interest, so I decided to take note of all my other AP classes and observed the same phenomenon. My grade’s music program is comprised of no more than 20 students, yet in a grade of 300 people, the number of music students who decide to take on more challenging courses outweighs the number of people who do not are not musically inclined. I have often been told that music in general makes people more intelligent, but I have never been told why. As a result, I did some research to uncover what music can actually do to our brains.
Musicians vs. Non-musicians
There is little doubt that music is good for developing brains. However, little is known about the anatomical markers of musical skills. In a study conducted by Harvard Medical School, the neural structure of professional musicians, amateur musicians, and non-musicians were compared. The results showed that as the music skills increased, grey matter volume also increased in motor, auditory, and visual regions. Grey matter is a type of neural tissue found in the brain and the spinal cord. The amount of grey matter is often associated with intelligence. Although this might not necessarily mean that musicians have a higher IQ, they do seem to be more adept in motor, auditory, and visual skills than the general population. However correlation does not always mean causation. Many have theorized that the neural structural changes in musicians could simply be innate, that some people are just born with brains that would allow them to be better at music or more inclined to play music. Although this theory seems plausible, the results of the study showed that there is an obvious difference between professional and amateur musicians.
However, not all individuals who are engaged in musical training receive the same amount of changes in neural structure. Another study, conducted by the University of Concordia, shows that those who receive musical training before the age of seven benefit more than those who receive musical training after the age of seven. The study examined 36 musicians: half of which started music before the age of seven while the other half started after that age. They were asked to tap a rhythm to test for motor skills. Through the use of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, it was found that those who had been involved in music before the age of seven demonstrated more connectivity between the left and right brain. However, these results do not mean that those who start music earlier in life are better musicians; there are many other factors that make up a great musician, such as style, passion, and expression.
Although these observations can serve as an encouragement for musicians and future musicians, they can also lead to programs that better communities. For example, the Harmony Project is a non-profit organization that uses musical programs to help low-income children. It primarily targets communities where the family income is almost two times below the federal-poverty level. Through this program, 93% of the seniors pursued post-secondary education, which is surprising, considering that the dropout rate is almost 50% in these neighborhoods.
Does merely listening to music make you smarter?
Although it is proven that musically-trained people demonstrate more executive functions than non-musicians, the assertion that only listening to music improves one’s cognitive function still sparks controversy. In 1993, Rauscher et al. conducted a study in which the IQ results of thirty-six subjects who listened to Mozart for ten minutes were compared with their results after they listened to relaxation instruction. Surprisingly, the average IQ scores of the subjects who listened to Mozart were eight or nine points higher than those in the other condition. Thus, the Mozart Effect, the theory that listening to Mozart’s music can improve spatial reasoning skills, was formulated. Spatial skills are the skills that help us understand and remember the spatial relations between objects.
Since then, thousands of parents started playing Mozart music to their children and developing fetuses, convinced that exposure to Mozart could induce positive, long-term effects. However, the Mozart effect is not necessarily correct. After the conduction of further studies, it was shown that although increased spatial skills have been noted, this effect never seems to last for more than 15 minutes. A permanent increase in IQ has not been seen either.
The reason why our spatial skills improve for a short period of time while we listen to music is because of the similarity between neural firing patterns of when we perform spatial tasks. Therefore, the exposure to music can induce the same firing effects used in spatial tasks, which would temporarily improve our spatial skills. Other types of music also have the same effect, though the specific criteria for what kind of music has not yet been distinguished. So in conclusion, no, listening to music will not make you smarter; however, if you like to listen to some classical or some pop music while you study to make you relax, your brain would certainly not discourage it.