Music Makes You Smarter!

Is it true that music makes you smarter? There's plenty of evidence to suggest that playing a musical instrument or developing an appreciation for music has many positive effects on brain function and intelligence.

Children who play in school bands and orchestras seem to maintain higher grade-point averages, and even senior citizens who play instruments or take them up late in life maintain brain function noticeably better than their non-musical peers. Research suggests that exposure to music positively impacts a child's reading age, IQ, and brain development. Adults also benefit from learning to play an instrument thanks to enhanced alertness and increased activity that have a positive effect on memory as well as enhancing the general experience of daily life.

It has also been established that playing a musical instrument generates beneficial effects in the anatomy and function of the brain. Growing evidence suggests that musicians' brains are functionally and structurally distinguishable from the brains of non-musicians. This difference is especially pronounced in the areas of the brain where music is processed, and starting to learn a musical instrument can favorably change the brain's neurophysiology at any age.

Scientific studies bear out theories that the ability to play music enhances brain function as well as improving the ability to hear all sounds—including speech. A study conducted at Northwestern University measured the neural responses of volunteers who were presented with snippets of a language they did not understand while they were ostensibly watching movies. Subjects with musical backgrounds demonstrated a higher level of ability to track the language than the non-musical subjects.

An intriguing detail of this research, published in the Nature Neuroscience journal, involved findings about the areas of the brain that were stimulated during the experiment. It was generally thought that music is processed in the cerebral cortex, the province of higher brain functions like language, reasoning, and thought. Instead the researchers found to their surprise that the brainstem—previously thought to be too primitive to be involved in complex processes like music—was in fact engaged in a complex interaction with the cortex while listening to sounds. This suggests that music affects more areas of the brain, and at a deeper level, than previously imagined.

Music's positive effect on the brain is so pronounced that researchers are already recommending the use of music study for therapeutic improvement of language, mood, and memory. Music appears to have such a strong influence on positive changes in the brain in areas that involve language and memory that it is reasonable to expect a connection between music study and enhanced thinking ability in the young as well as rehabilitation in adults.

Donald A. Hodges, director of the Music Research Institute at the University of North Carolina says, "Nothing activates as many areas of the brain as music." Adds Hodges, "Music makes you smarter because it helps you understand yourself as a human being and your relationship to the world."

Research suggests that giving children opportunities to interact with great music both as listeners and as performers is beneficial for their mental skills. While 1993 experiments in which subjects listened to Mozart were misinterpreted to claim that the maestro's tunes can lead directly to a higher IQ, later studies did conclude that listening to classical music temporarily heightens one's senses of space and time. Stimulating these senses is beneficial in itself, as it acts like exercise for the brain. Says Hodges, "The brain: use it or lose it. The more education you have, the more interconnections in the brain."

Frances Rauscher, Ph.D., the researcher whose experiments were misinterpreted to create the buzz around the "Mozart Effect" subsequently did work showing that after eight months of lessons on music keyboards, preschool children experienced a 46% boost in spatial reasoning IQ—helpful for the ability to do math.

Since the late 1990s, The College Board has been reporting that music students outperform non-music students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Scores up to 52 points higher on the verbal SAT and 37 points higher on the math section are routinely achieved by college-bound high school seniors with backgrounds or experience in musical performance compared to their non-musical peers.

And Petr Janata, a music psychologist at Dartmouth published research in the journal Science confirming that music does more than almost any other stimulus to increase connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain as well as the areas that house emotion and memory.

So if the question is, "Does music make you smarter"? The answer is a confident, "Yes"!
Reprinted from the Woodwind and the Brasswind: