We have all heard that music is good for your soul, but can it be good for brain as well? A group of Canadian scientists who specialize in learning, memory and language in children think so. They have found evidence that pre-schoolers can improve their verbal intelligence after only 20 days of classroom instruction using interactive, music-based cognitive training cartoons.
The study -- conducted at York University by Dr. Sylvain Moreno, who is now the Lead Scientist at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute (RRI) Centre for Brain Fitness, showed that the cognitive benefit was striking and consistent in 90 per cent of the children who took the four-week learning program and was additionally confirmed by brain imaging data that indicated brain changes had taken place related to the training. "Our data have confirmed a rapid transfer of cognitive benefits in young children after only 20 days of training on an interactive, music-based cognitive training program. The strength of this effect in almost all of the children was remarkable," said Dr. Moreno.
Brain scanning technologies have permitted neuroscientists to test ideas about the link between music and intelligence. And some of the results are clear: Musicians have distinctively different brains.
As an example, if you examine the brain of a keyboard player, you will discover that the region of the brain that controls finger movements is enlarged (Pascual-Leone 2001). Also, brain scans of 9 to 11-year old children have revealed that those kids who play musical instruments have significantly more grey matter volume in both the sensorimotor cortex and the occipital lobes (Schlaug et al 2005). In fact, musicians have significantly more grey matter in several brain regions (Schlaug et al 2005), and the effects of music lessons seem to increase with the intensity of training. You may have heard of the Mozart effect -- the notion that you can increase your intelligence by listening to Mozart's music. Experiments have revealed that people sometimes enjoy a brief improvement in visual-spatial skills immediately after listening to a Mozart sonata (Rauscher et al 1993; Hetland 2000). However, the results have been inconsistent, with some labs reporting that they were unable to reproduce the effect.
Dr. Moreno and his researchers have been able to collect enough data to support this theory. In the study, 48 pre-schoolers four to six years of age participated in computer-based, cognitive training programs that were projected on a large classroom wall and featured colorful, animated cartoon characters delivering the lessons. The children were divided into two groups. One group received music-based, cognitive training that involved a combination of motor, perceptual and cognitive tasks, and included training on rhythm, pitch, melody, voice and basic musical concepts. The other group received visual art training that emphasized the development of visuo-spatial skills relating to concepts such as shape, color, line, dimension and perspective.
Researchers tested the children for verbal and spatial intelligence before and after the training using the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (Third Edition). The team also conducted brain imaging using non-invasive electroencephalography (EEG) which measures the time course of brain activity. The results were dramatic and consistent. "The results of this study strongly affirm the resonance between music and child development, and encourage us to think of music not just as a medium or tool through which treatment might be delivered, but as the treatment itself," said Dr. Chau, a Senior Scientist at Bloorview Research Institute and Canada Research Chair in Paediatric Rehabilitation Engineering.
Exposing a child to great music -- as a listener and as a player -- is good for brain development. "Nothing activates as many areas of the brain as music," says researcher Donald A. Hodges, Covington Distinguished Professor of Music Education and director of the Music Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He explained that a rich environment makes a difference: "The brain: Use it or lose it. The more education you have, the more the interconnections in the brain. Music changes the brain." It's an observation that Patricia DeCorsey, coordinator of Lawrence University's Early Childhood Music Program in Appleton, has been making for years. "By introducing children to music, so many areas of the brain benefit at the same time, like the mathematical and language centers," said DeCorsey. "It's really a super-advantage."
The area of neuroscience is exploding around the globe and Ontario is in the forefront. Organizations like the Ontario Brain Institute and Baycrest are helping our province get noticed on a global scale. Recently, the first annual Brain Power Conference being held at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto on May 3-4, 2012 was announced with platinum media partner Today's Parent.
The conference will interest parents, teachers and other stakeholders who want information about the latest neuroscience findings and their implications for shaping education, cognitively-beneficial media and experiences for children. Collaborative partners will examine what the latest scientific evidence means to the future of education and whether it is possible to have a direct impact on a child's capacity to learn. Join their Facebook Group for updates and mark the date on your calendar.