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How Musical Training Can Develop Your Brain…

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The positive effects that musical training can have on cognitive functions other than music has been a source of interest for researchers for a long time. Standardised assessments of IQ and musical ability suggested the two were correlated – and it was believed that participation in musical training could improve IQ.

Recently, research has shifted focus. Instead of the effects musical training has on global intelligence, research now focuses on benefits to specific skills and tasks in individuals.Musical training has proved to improve skills including memory, verbal memory, literacy and so on. Musicians are also better at processing speech in environments where there is a lot of background noise. They also possess a better propensity for processing auditory signals that are in some way degraded and show an advantage over their musically naive counterparts when it comes to pitch detection in both music and language.

A new study aimed to assess neurodevelopment in adolescence and the impact that forms of experience, such as musical training, could have on this process.
Neuro-physiological methods were used to measure subcortical and cortical responses to speech in the brains of two groups of adolescents in a high school in the Chicago area. One group took part in group musical training and one group took part in a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programme. Enrolment on to one of these two programmes was part of the curriculum of the schools with which the lead researcher, Adam Tierney worked. At adolescence the brain is not fully developed and specific areas are yet to mature, which makes this an interesting age to do these tests.

The method allowed Tierney and his coworkers to estimate how their participants’ brains encoded speech before and after three years of taking part in the two different types of training. Language skills were also assessed using a phonological awareness task – which included asking the teens to create a new word by dropping a syllable or unit of sound from a spoken word. They were also assessed using a phonological memory task, in which they had to repeat back lists of digits or non-English words, and a rapid naming task, where they had to read aloud a list of letters or digits as quickly and accurately as they could.
The results showed that both groups made improvements in all of the language tasks, as would be expected over this period in their development – but, in addition, the degree of improvement was larger in the phonological awareness task for the group who had undergone musical training.

The researchers observed the normal brain development that occurs at this age in both groups. However, for those who participated in musical training the period of time during which regions of the brain responsible for auditory processing were developing was extended in comparison to those that did the officer training. The musically trained groups also showed an accelerated time course for reaching adult cortical development. That means the results suggest that participation in musical training can speed up brain development and improve literacy skills.

If employed in schools, music could offer an effective, economical and enjoyable activity that could help improve language skills in children around the world. Giving adolescents musical training could help kick-start and quicken maturation of their brains.

The study also suggests that musical training could be helpful for young people, who struggle with learning a second language. It prolongs the time in which the brain is developing and is able to deal with complex auditory input, like a second language.

It is important to note however, that although musical training was shown to produce benefits for the phonological awareness language tasks, for the other two tests of phonological memory and rapid naming, there was no difference between the two groups. This shows that although musical training does have the potential to enhance some forms of language skills, there are areas that it does not affect.

What do you personally think?