Ten years ago, the Governor of Georgia earmarked more than $100,000 of his state’s yearly budget for classical music CDs that hospitals would send home with new parents to play for their newborns. His proposal was based on a theory known as the Mozart Effect, which suggested that classical music could make you smarter just by listening to it.
That theory has since been debunked, and a new study says it’s not listening to music but playing music that has positive impacts on the brain. And it isn’t that playing music makes you smarter, exactly, but that it can improve language abilities, particularly in young children who are learning to read. The study, which was a collaborative effort between researchers at Beijing Normal University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research supports an existing body of evidence that suggests learning a musical instrument has positive impacts on brain function—and language abilities, specifically.
“The better children’s language skills are, the more they progress in school and everything that goes with that in terms of higher education opportunities,” says John Gabrieli, one of the study's authors and a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.
During the study, children between the ages of four and five received three 45-minute piano lessons per week in addition to their regular school work. After six months, they demonstrated improved phonological awareness—or the awareness of words’ sound structure—which is a key component in learning to read.
“I don’t know that the same would be true once a child was deep into reading," Gabrieli says, "but in this early stage of learning where children are building their reading abilities off of their language abilities, learning piano seems to provide a nice boost for language performance."
The suggestion that playing an instrument boosts reading abilities might be useful for school systems trying to determine the best use of limited funds. But spending already-tight resources on instruments and music teachers seems like a lot to go through when you could just devote more classroom time to reading. Right?
The researchers knew that question would come up, so they also tested a second group of students who received extra reading lessons for six months, and a third group who received no extra lessons at all. When compared with the group who just read more, the students who took piano lessons were better at hearing the differences between words. Both groups outperformed the group that received no extra lessons at all.
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“Schools often focus on reading and math as core skills, and there are questions about whether experiences like music are essential or inessential. Our research contributes to the idea that the benefits of learning music can extend to something fundamental, like how language is processed,” Gabrieli says.
The growing body of evidence to support the fundamental importance of music education in schools also raises important questions about who has access to what seem to be some pretty significant benefits. Schools that serve poorer communities are less likely to offer music programs, and not every family can afford private music lessons if they’re not offered in school. Gabrieli says future areas of research should look into figuring out how to replicate the same things that piano lessons offer in a way that’s more accessible—like with an app, or a cheaper and more mobile instrument. “Piano instruction is an inherently limited educational format for families and school systems," Gabrieli says, "so discovering whether there are more scalable approaches that build on the same kind of experiences would be a high priority."
This kind of scalability will require a solid understanding of what playing an instrument actually involves, and why that’s beneficial. “Playing an instrument is performing an action on a tool that produces visual, auditory, and tactile feedback,” says Simon Landry, a researcher who authored a 2017 study that found musicians have faster reaction times and are better at integrating information from multiple senses at once. According to Landry, this is because playing a musical instrument is essentially creating an environment for your brain to learn how to receive and find relationships between different types of sensory information.
And perhaps it’s not about playing an instrument at all: “It’s about doing something that stimulates your brain in all the right ways, and something you’ll want to do," Landry says. "There are tons of benefits to playing music, but they are all related to sensory stimulation."
One possible next step might be identifying some similar experiences—surprisingly, Landry says knitting might be one—that offer the same multi sensory stimulation that music does, and testing them to be sure they provide the same benefits.
Because theories like those underlying the Mozart Effect have a tendency to be so broadly misinterpreted—even inspiring some researchers to dedicate their entire careers to debunking them, Gabrieli says— it’s important to not get ahead of the science.
“Until you know somewhat for sure that some version of this works, it’s hard to inspire careful research about whether something more scalable will work,” he says.
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