Update: Applications of Research in Music
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Music Education and the Brain: What Does It Take to Make a Change?
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The fields of neuroscience and music have been inter-
twined over the past two decades in an effort to unlock
some of the secrets of how the human brain develops and
functions. Eminent neuroscience researcher Robert
Zatorre (2005) wrote that “music involves a tantalizing
mix of practically every human cognitive function”
(p. 312) and because of this music provides unique insights
into how the brain develops and processes information.
Early studies involved participants listening to music
while positron emission tomography and functional mag-
netic resonance imaging technology was used to observe
how the brain made sense of the sounds. Comparative
studies that observed responses to different melodies or
rhythmic samples were undertaken. Brain imaging tech-
nology rapidly advanced so that neuroscientists could
observe musicians in the act of making or imaging to
make music. Theories of how musical and nonmusical
information is stored and processed began to emerge.
Neuroscientists began to see identifiable differences
between participants they classified as musicians and
nonmusicians. These differences are divided into two
areas: brain structures (the areas in the brain, such as cor-
pus callosum and auditory cortex) and brain functions
(the mechanisms the brain uses to form message path-
ways and process information). These differences cov-
ered a variety of attributes. Participants classified as
musicians were found to have heightened capacities in
multiple areas of the brain, including memory (Degé,
Wehrum, Stark, & Schwarzer, 2011; Jonides, 2008),
language acquisition and syntax (Dammann, 2009; Patel,
2009), executive function (Hanna-Pladdy & MacKay,
2011; Posner, Rothbart, Sheese, & Kieras, 2008), and
brain plasticity (Hannon & Trainor, 2007; Hyde et al.,
2009). These differences sparked a number of studies
that attempted to identify how and why participants
classed as musicians displayed significant differences in
their brain function and structure to nonmusicians.
This research had the potential to support many of the
inherent beliefs about the importance of music education
that I based my practice on as a university teacher educa-
tor and high school music teacher. The findings showed
that music education could positively and permanently
improve cognitive skills, physical development, and
emotional well-being. Although these benefits have often
been argued from an aesthetic education perspective
(Austin & Reinhardt, 1999; Leonhard & House, 1959;
Meyer, 1956; Reimer, 1993; Swanwick, 1979), neurosci-
ence offered a “hard science” perspective and body of
knowledge that implicated music education as a core
learning area for children. Both aesthetic and scientific
research suggested ways that music education could help
students succeed in tomorrow’s world and the broader
1University of Canberra, Bruce, ACT, Australia
Anita Collins, University of Canberra, Faculty of Education, Building 5,
Bruce, ACT 2601, Australia.
Music Education and the Brain: What
Does It Take to Make a Change?
Neuroscientists have worked for over two decades to understand how the brain processes music, affects emotions,
and changes brain development. Much of this research has been based on a model that compares the brain function
of participants classified as musicians and nonmusicians. This body of knowledge reveals a large number of benefits
from music education including improvements in memory, language acquisition, executive function, and brain plasticity.
These findings offer the beginnings of an evidence-based argument in favor of music education for every child. Yet
if the potential of this research is to be leveraged for this purpose, music educators need to know the type, period,
and age range for music education that has been shown to affect positive, measurable, and enduring change in brain
development. This article explores the criteria used to define musician and suggests ways these criteria could be used
to advocate for specific developments in music education curricula.
advocacy, brain, brain development, music education, musician, neuroscience
2 Update XX(X)
implications of these findings could “support music as a
core within the complete curriculum” as outlined in the
Advocacy statement of the NAfME Strategic Plan
(NAfME, 2011, p. 1)
Yet in order for these findings effectively underpin
advocacy for music education, a significant question
related to the relevance of those findings to everyday
people, in this case children of school age, not “musi-
cians” needed to be answered. What does neuroscience
classify as a musician? And how significant are factors
such as the type and length of music education the partici-
pants in those studies had received, and the age at which
they had received it? In short, an investigation of the
design parameters of those studies was needed before the
findings could be translated in the school context and for
effective advocacy of music education.
Benefits of Music Education to Brain
Before outlining the review method and findings, it is
helpful to gain an overview of the benefits of music edu-
cation to brain development, as suggested by recent neu-
roscientific research. This is by no means an exhaustive
overview but aims to better inform music educators of
relevant findings in the field.
Many are aware of the broad claims made in the name
of the preliminary research by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky
(1993) on the Mozart Effect (Campbell, 2001) and the
capacity for music, but not music education, to raise intel-
ligence levels. Campbell’s interpretation of the Rauscher
et al. study along with many other studies has been refuted
by numerous researchers in the field and may have done
music education a great disservice at the time. However,
the field of neuroscience has continued to discover, and
strengthen, the links between music education and posi-
tive brain development. The study in this article aims to
give music educators more recent and credible findings
about music education from the decade of research since
the Mozart Effect. As mentioned in the introduction, the
use of these findings to support and advocate for the
importance and value of music education needs to be
viewed in tandem with the specific criteria that research-
ers have used to define a musician.
Musicians have been found to possess advanced skills
in both long and short-term memory (Jonides, 2008) and
memory storage and retrieval (Dunbar, 2008). It has been
suggested that music rehearsal helps improve the mem-
ory pathways in the brain and that musicians use pictures
and narrative to link memories. Furthermore, it has been
suggested that musicians attach multiple “tags” to a sin-
gle memory, such as a conceptual tag, emotional tag, and
contextual tag, and this considerably enhances memory
storage and retrieval. Enhanced verbal memory is linked
to these skills and suggests that music education enhances
the pathways for melodic memory and that the brain
translates this into language. Most recently, Koelsch
(2011) has suggested that “the human brain, particularly
at an early age, does not treat language and music as
strictly separate domains, but rather treats language as a
special case of music” (p. 16).
Following on from this finding, musicians have been
found to acquire language and understand the rules of
language and its syntax more effectively than nonmusi-
cians (Dammann, 2009; Peretz et al., 2009; Wandell,
Dougherty, Ben-Shachar, Deutsch, & Tsang, 2009). This
area has attracted attention from researchers on the basis
that the study of music processing might provide insight
into the development of language processing in the brain
(Patel, 2008). Researchers suggest that music education
assists in the understanding of musical syntax, which in
turn assists in understanding language syntax. In fact,
music education may develop the mirror neuron system
in the brain (Haslinger et al., 2005; Molnar-Szakacs &
Overy, 2006; Overy & Molnar-Szakacs, 2009). This sys-
tem enables the brain to complete two processes at once,
making the brain work twice as effectively in the same
amount of time. In essence, a musician’s brain can work
twice as well in half the time. However, it should be noted
that at the time of writing, significant debate remains over
whether music education is solely responsible for this
type of brain development, or if it simply capitalizes on
preexisting differences in an individual’s mirror neuron
system (Zatorre, Chen, & Penhune, 2007).
The same mirror neuron system allows simultaneous
processing of different types of information, for example,
analyzing a sound for both its perceptual and hierarchical
qualities. This area of brain development connects with a
group of skills known collectively as Executive Function.
Musicians have been found to have higher levels of
Executive Function (Geake, 2009; Hanna-Pladdy &
MacKay, 2011), which refer to a group of interlinked
tasks that include planning, strategizing, setting goals,
and paying attention to detail. To perform these tasks at a
high level, the brain needs to be able to analyze informa-
tion simultaneously and consider both the cognitive and
emotional aspects. High levels of Executive Function are
evident in a person who can successfully resolve internal
and external conflict, or solve problems effectively.
Again, research has suggested that musical rehearsal
assists with the development of attention skills, which is
a significant factor in Executive Function (Jonides, 2008).
Musicians also appear to have higher levels of brain
plasticity and this was one of the original areas that
sparked investigation of the benefits of music education
to brain development (Munte, Altenmuller, & Jancke,
2002; Schlaug, 2001). Brain plasticity refers to the capac-
ity of the brain to change, remain flexible, and continue to
learn throughout one’s life. This challenges earlier think-
ing that the human brain became “set” or unable to change
or learn once we reached adulthood, summed up by the
adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Music
education has been found to encourage high levels of
plasticity in the auditory cortex (where we process sound
information) and frontal cortex (where we process many
executive functions such as the ability to predict conse-
quences, moderate emotional reactions, and determine
similarities and differences). This plasticity allows for
higher levels of creativity and divergent thinking (Gibson,
Folley, & Park, 2009) as well as improved brain health
into later life (Moser, 2005).
Although the above review of neuroscience research
is not exhaustive, it does highlight the benefits of the
type of music education that involves making, rehears-
ing, performing, and understanding music on brain
development. Although these findings are useful when
advocating for the importance and value of music edu-
cation within the curriculum, such advocacy can be
strengthened by a greater understanding of the type and
length of music education that has led to these research
Too often music education is devalued by other educa-
tors, leaders, and policy makers who see it as a vehicle for
entertainment for the school community. The fact that the
final product, the performance, is the public face of
the music education program in a school can neglect the
meaningful learning that occurs in the learning process
leading up to a performance. The argument may now be
made, using findings based in the scientific rather than
artistic fields, that the learning process is far more impor-
tant than the performance for the overall neurological
development of a child. A paradigm shift of this kind
could have significant implications for all aspects of
music education. To assist in this recognition the music
profession needs specific details from the research that
advocates for this type of shift.
The review that follows will outline the type, length,
and age period of music education that has been shown to
affect positive and permanent changes in brain develop-
ment as outlined in the current body of research in the
This review consisted of 14 studies and took the form of
a meta-analysis that compared the criteria used in each
study to identify musicians and nonmusicians. The stud-
ies were selected from a larger literature review to the
field of music education and neuroscience. The compari-
son focused on the specific activities that were identified
as music education and over what period of time and at
what age these activities occurred.
The key issue on review of the studies was the age of
the participants when the study occurred. Many of the
earlier studies were conducted using professionals and
amateurs adult musician whereas a number of the more
recent studies involved children of various ages. Some of
the studies investigated one small part or activity within
the brain whereas other studies focused on the broader
range of brain activity that was influenced by music edu-
cation. To further complicate the process, details of the
selection criteria could be extremely brief. In a published
research article, this information was typically buried in a
single sentence in the methodology section or scattered
throughout the findings and discussion sections.
The studies selected for review needed to be broad
enough to provide an overview of the research findings
and narrow enough to define a musician for the purposes
of informing and advocating for the importance of music
education in a child’s learning. Therefore, the studies
were divided equally between adult and child partici-
pants. The term commonly used in the studies to identify
music education was formal music training. For the pur-
poses of this review, the term formal music training will
be used in the place of music education.
Selection of Studies
The 14 studies fall into two groups based on their partici-
pants. The list of the studies can be found in Table 1 and
will be referred to in this article as Studies 1, 2, and so
on. Studies 1 to 7 involve adult participants. These stud-
ies compared professional musicians (those drawing
their primary income from musical performance or
music education) with nonmusicians (who had no sig-
nificant formal instrumental music education experi-
ences). The criterion for a musician in this group was
defined in a number of different ways: by the average
hours of practice per day (Studies 1, 6, and 7), if they had
participated in continuous music learning from child-
hood through adolescence (equal or more than 10 years;
Study 4), and/or trained at a specified music school
(Studies 1, 2, 3, and 5).
The second group of studies, Studies 8 to 14, involved
child participants between the ages of 3 and 11 years. Six
out of the seven studies compared those who undertook
formal music training in the form of instrumental music
lessons. The only study that used an alternative form of
music education was Study 11, which undertook formal
Kodaly lessons in a classroom environment.
Exclusionary Criteria Within the Studies
Several exclusionary criteria existed in each study. The
most prominent was that all participants selected for the
experiment were right handed, which was determined by
4 Update XX(X)
the use of the Edinburgh Handedness Test (Oldfield,
1971). As these studies involved scientific testing, this is
a commonly used criterion to limit variability in the
results. Participants were also excluded on the grounds of
a history of hearing and vision problems, a history of sei-
zures, metal implants, pregnancy, or head trauma with
loss of consciousness (Study 4), problems or delays with
language acquisition, learning problems, and if they had
given up learning an instrument (Study 12). Two interest-
ing exclusions used in the studies were those participants
who learnt more than one instrument (Studies 3 and 5)
and those who learnt a foreign language before 6 years of
age (Study 12).
Type of Music Education
The majority of the studies, with the exception of Studies 8
and 11, defined formal music training as the learning of a
musical instrument. This included string, keyboard, or
conventionally recognized musical instruments. This
choice could have been made for a number of reasons: For
the purposes of a scientific study this option presents far
fewer variables, the participant group would be easier to
access, students are likely to undertake this type of musical
learning for several years with the same teacher as opposed
to multiple classroom teachers and methodologies during
the same period. Studies 8 and 11 used weekly Orff or
Kodaly lessons, respectively, in their definition of musi-
cian, and although Study 8 did use Orff instruments in con-
junction with other Orff activities (such as singing and
games), learning a single musical instrument was not the
primary objective of this type of formal music training.
In addition to this definition, the review revealed fur-
ther details about the type of formal music training that
contributed to the definition of a musician. Disregarding
Studies 8 and 11, all studies required weekly lessons on
a musical instrument during the school year in a one
teacher/one student format. Studies 8 and 11 listed for-
mal music training as weekly lessons during the school
year in a one teacher/no more than six student format.
Period of Music Education
Studies 1 to 7 involved professional musicians and there-
fore the duration of their training varied significantly but
was always more than 10 years and involved weekly one-
to-one lessons. Studies 8 to 14 provided more informa-
tion that could be useful to a music educator. Among
other objectives, these studies sought to determine the
length of formal music education required to produce
structural and functional brain changes. Essentially, they
Table 1. Studies Included in the Literature Review.
Studies involving adult participants Studies involving child participants
1. Gaser, C., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Brain structures differ between
musicians and non-musicians. Journal of Neuroscience, 23,
2. Schlaug, G. (2001). The brain of musicians: A model for
functional and structural adaptation. Annals of the New York
Academy of Sciences, 930, 281–299.
3. Fujioka, T., Trainor, L. J., Ross, B., Kakigi, R., & Pantev, C.
(2004). Musical training enhances automatic encoding of
melodic contour and interval structure. Journal of Cognitive
Neuroscience, 16, 1010–1021.
4. Schmithorst, V. J., & Wilke, M. (2002). Differences in white
matter architecture between musicians and non-musicians: A
diffusion tensor imaging study. Neuroscience Letters, 321, 57–60.
5. Bangert, M., & Schlaug, G. (2006). Specialization of the
specialized in features of external human brain morphology.
European Journal of Neuroscience, 24, 1832–1834.
6. Bengtsson, S. L., Nagy, Z., Skare, K., Forsman, L., Forssberg,
H., & Ullen, F. (2005). Extensive piano practicing has regionally
specific effects on white matter development. Nature
Neuroscience, 8, 1148–1150.
7. Ridding, M. C., Brouwer, B., & Nordstrom, M. A. (2000).
Reduced interhemispheric inhibition in musicians. Experimental
Brain Research, 133, 249–253.
8. Marin, M. (2009). Effects of early musical training on
musical and linguistic syntactic abilities. Neurosciences
and Music III—Disorders and Plasticity, 1169, 187–190.
9. Schlaug, G., Forgeard, M., Zhu, L., Norton, A., &
Winner, E. (2009). Training–induced neuroplasticity
in young children. Annals of the New York Academy of
Sciences, 1169, 205–208.
10. Hyde, K., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner,
E., Evans, A. C., & Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical training
shapes structural brain development. Journal of
Neuroscience, 26, 3019–3025.
11. Schellenberg, E. G. (2004). Music lesson and IQ.
Psychological Sciences, 15, 511–514.
12. Jentschke, S., & Koelsch, S. (2009). Musical training
modulates the development of syntax processing in
children. NeuroImage, 47, 725–744.
13. Hetland, L. (2000). Learning to make music enhances
spatial reasoning. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34,
14. Hannon, E. E., & Trainor, L. J. (2007). Music acquisition:
Effects of enculturation and formal training on
development. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 465–472.
were searching for a minimum period of music training
required to change the brain. Studies 9, 10, and 14 found
that participants who underwent weekly instrumental les-
sons from between 8 weeks and 15 months showed either
structural or functional changes in brain activity but not
both. Studies 12 and 13 showed that both structural and
functional changes in the brain occurred after a minimum
of 2 years of formal instrumental music training.
Age of Music Education
The age at which formal music training occurred varied
widely. The studies involving children only examined
children in their primary school years (<11 years of age)
whereas the studies involving adults examined a far wider
age range. Study 6 examined the average practice hours
of professional musicians in three important periods dur-
ing their childhood and adolescence, the age they began
practicing till 11 years, 12 to 16 years, and 17 years until
time of test. Study 6 found that the earlier the students
began practicing a musical instrument the more signifi-
cant the changes in the brain. Study 13 echoes this find-
ing and Study 4 used the continuation of instrumental
lessons through childhood and adolescence as a criteria
for their musicians.
The review revealed a number of useful research findings
and also some significant questions that deserve further
investigation. In essence, positive changes in brain struc-
ture and function have been observed in musicians who
have learned a musical instrument in a weekly one-to-one
lesson for more than 2 years and have commenced learn-
ing as early as is appropriate for their instrument. In terms
of music education, this definition would support the con-
cept of experiential learning or learning through doing
that Dewey (1910) and Eisner (2002) understood educa-
tion to be. This type of music education would fall into the
paradigm on which many of our state and national curri-
cula are based, that music education must occur through
the medium of music making. In an even narrower sense,
it is music making that occurs through performance, rather
than composition. This definition also supports the direct
instruction or master and apprentice model of music edu-
cation that includes regular weekly connection with an
expert on the instrument. This has been the predominant
model for instrumental tuition for centuries, but rather
than consider this as a best practice model, it should move
appropriately to be considered the most established or pre-
dominant. The minimum of 2 years tuition in this format
is an interesting finding for music educators. Music pro-
grams can be organized in a myriad ways, but a common
learning period is for one semester or 1 year. Looking at
musical development in 2-year time frames may not be as
common and this finding may encourage a reexamination
of how we view musical development when related to
The definition of a musician in these studies begs a
number of questions that future research might usefully
address including: Is instrumental music training the only
form of music education that has positive effects on brain
development? If students learn in a group or social situa-
tion does this lessen the positive effects of formal music
training? If a child plays a violin and begins learning at 3
years of age, is their brain development greater than a
child who takes up trombone at 10 years of age?
Our current body of research does not appear to pro-
vide answers to these questions. The field itself is rela-
tively young (entering its third decade) and research not
only needs to be initiated but also verified and replicated
in different contexts and at different times in history.
Some suggest that using these findings even now is too
soon (Gruhn, 2004). I would venture that learning a musi-
cal instrumental is not the only form of music education
that positively effects brain development, but it provides
clear and easy parameters on which to base a scientific
study. It is also an easy and large participant group to
access. These two reasons may make this group attractive
to neuroscientists, more so than a classroom program
based on an Orff or Kodaly methodology or informal
music learning environments.
Music educators know that every music ensemble or
music learning environment is unique and different. It
depends on the aims of the ensemble, performance goals,
resourcing, rehearsal space and frequency, student per-
sonalities, and teaching style. For a scientist, the number
of variables this context introduces makes it unattractive
for scientific study. Yet some scientific studies have
examined this aspect of music education (Koelsch &
Siebel, 2005), and Sloboda (1991) argues that the physi-
cal setting and social dynamics of a music making experi-
ence are just as important as any brain development that
occurs. Research in this area, using the small knowledge
base that already exists, could assist music educators to
understand how and why music education in a group can
affect brain development. Similarly, the imperative for
active music making rather than more passive music
appreciation could be bolstered by such research.
The age at which music education begins has been
widely researched and findings in this area are similar;
the earlier a child begins to be exposed and understand
music the more they benefit. Although this idea is impor-
tant, it will be just as important to follow the musical
learning and brain development of children over a longer
period than 2 years, which will likely happen as the field
continues to grow and research questions become more
6 Update XX(X)
The purpose of research should always be to inform
and improve practice. The findings from this review could
be applied in a broad range of circumstances, including
• Supporting research for the establishment of an
instrumental music program
• Supporting research for the extension of a compul-
sory music program to a minimum of 2 years
• Supporting research for the expansion of an
instrumental music program that may have been
established on a pilot, voluntary, or user-pays
• Supporting research for the justification of the
continuation of an instrumental music program
that is in danger of closure
• Supporting research in the education of parents,
community bodies, and school administrators on
the benefits of instrumental music education
As music educators, we find ourselves consistently
arguing for the importance and value of our discipline. In
these times of economic restraint and the constant call to
fit more learning into a smaller time frame, we will see
ourselves continue to argue our case. In the past, our
arguments have been based predominantly on the aes-
thetic benefits of the arts in the development of a well-
rounded student. I do not believe we should cast aside
those important points in favor of a scientific-based argu-
ment, but by presenting our position with findings from
both sides, it is more likely that our arguments will reach
and influence a larger number of people who value differ-
ent types of evidence. The ultimate goal of this approach
is to shift the current paradigm of the value of music edu-
cation in each child’s development to reflect Oliver
Sacks’s conviction that “for the vast majority of students,
music can be every bit as important educationally as read-
ing and writing” (2007, p. 102). Importantly, the research
field has advanced sufficiently to the point that instead of
passively reading the questions posed by the neurosci-
ence, we may begin to actively ask the questions our-
selves and work together to better understand music
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with
respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
The author received no financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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