Effects of Music Training on the Child's Brain and Cognitive ...

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Effects of Music Training on the Child’s Brain
and Cognitive Development

GOTTFRIED SCHLAUG,a ANDREA NORTON,a KATIE OVERY,a
AND ELLEN WINNERb
aDepartment of Neurology, Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory, Beth Israel Deaconess
Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA
bDepartment of Psychology, Boston College, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

ABSTRACT: Research has revealed structural and functional differences in the
brains of adult instrumental musicians compared to those of matched non-
musician controls, with intensity/duration of instrumental training and prac-
tice being important predictors of these differences. Nevertheless, the
differential contributions of nature and nurture to these differences are not yet
clear. The musician–nonmusician comparison is an ideal model for examining
whether and, if so, where such functional and structural brain plasticity oc-
curs, because musicians acquire and continuously practice a variety of complex
motor, auditory, and multimodal skills (e.g., translating visually perceived mu-
sical symbols into motor commands while simultaneously monitoring instru-
mental output and receiving multisensory feedback). Research has also
demonstrated that music training in children results in long-term enhance-
ment of visual–spatial, verbal, and mathematical performance. However, the
underlying neural bases of such enhancements and whether the intensity and
duration of instrumental training or other factors, such as extracurricular ac-
tivities, attention, motivation, or instructional methods can contribute to or
predict these enhancements are yet unknown. Here we report the initial results
from our studies examining the brain and cognitive effects of instrumental mu-
sic training on young children in a longitudinal study and a cross-sectional
comparison in older children. Further, we present a comparison of the results
in these children’s studies with observations from our cross-sectional studies
with adults.
KEYWORDS: music; instrumental music training; musicians; nonmusicians;
brain plasticity; skill learning; longitudinal study; children; development
morphometry; fMRI
BRAIN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ADULT
MUSICIANS AND NONMUSICIANS
Instrumental training is a multisensory motor experience, typically initiated at an
early age. Playing an instrument requires a host of skills, including reading a com-
Address for correspondence: Gottfried Schlaug, Department of Neurology, Music and Neu-
roimaging Laboratory, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, 330
Brookline Avenue, Palmer 127, Boston, MA 02215. Voice: 617-632-8912; fax: 617-632-8920.
gschlaug@bidmc.harvard.edu; www.musicianbrain.com
Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1060: 219–230 (2005). © 2005 New York Academy of Sciences.
doi: 10.1196/annals.1360.015
219

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SCHLAUG et al.: EFFECTS OF MUSIC TRAINING ON THE CHILD’S BRAIN
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plex symbolic system (musical notation) and translating it into sequential, bimanual
motor activity dependent on multisensory feedback; developing fine motor skills
coupled with metric precision; memorizing long musical passages; and improvising
within given musical parameters. Studies have explored the brain bases of these
highly specialized sensorimotor,1–5 auditory,6–11 and auditory–spatial12 skills. As
shown in FIGURE 1 (a voxel-based morphometric analysis of nonmusicians com-
pared with amateur and professional musicians), professional keyboard players, who
reported approximately twice as much weekly practice time as the amateur musi-
cians,5 have significantly more gray matter in several brain regions, including the
primary sensorimotor cortex, the adjacent superior premotor and anterior superior
parietal cortex bilaterally, mesial Heschl’s gyrus (primary auditory cortex), the cer-
ebellum, the inferior frontal gyrus, and part of the lateral inferior temporal lobe, than
either the amateur musicians or the nonmusicians.
While it may not be as surprising that structural differences are found in those
brain regions that are closely linked to skills learned during instrumental music train-
ing (such as independent fine motor movements in both hands and auditory discrim-
ination), structural differences outside of these primary regions (e.g., inferior frontal
gyrus; see also Ref. 13) are of particular interest since this may indicate that plastic-
ity can occur in brain regions that either have control over primary musical functions
or serve as multimodal integration regions for musical skills. Functional correlates
of music processing differences between musicians and nonmusicians typically
show greater lateralization and stronger activation of auditory association areas in
musicians, whereas nonmusicians may show stronger activation of primary auditory
FIGURE 2. Within-musician, instrument-typical, gross-anatomical differences are
seen in the precentral gyrus.

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regions.11 These effects have also been found in short-term training studies both in
adult nonmusicians and in young children using auditory evoked potentials.14–16
Further support for the plasticity hypothesis comes from studies showing within-
musician differences. Pantev and colleagues17 found more pronounced cortical
responses to trumpet and string tones in the respective players of those instruments,
demonstrating that functional brain differences can be associated with the particular
musical instrument played. Similarly, when comparing string and keyboard players,
Bangert and colleagues18 from our group have found within-musician differences in
the omega sign (OS), an anatomical landmark of the precentral gyrus commonly
associated with representation of hand/finger movement (see FIG. 2). The majority
of the adult keyboard players had an elaborated configuration of the precentral gyrus
on both sides, whereas most of the adult string players had this atypicality only on
the left. There is evidence suggesting that these structural differences in musicians’
brains are more pronounced in musicians who began study at a younger age1,19,20
and who practiced with greater intensity.5,10,21 Long-term motor training studies in
animal studies also support the argument for training-associated brain plasticity.22
In order to determine whether the structural and functional differences seen in
adult musicians reflect adaptations that occurred as a result of musical training dur-
ing sensitive periods of brain development, or are instead, markers of musical inter-
est and/or aptitude that existed prior to training, it is necessary to examine children
and/or adults before the onset of instrumental music training and compare them to a
group of control subjects not planning to study a musical instrument and practice
regularly. Thus, we report here our baseline results and preliminary analyses after
the first year of our pilot longitudinal study that aims to examine this hypothesis.
These results are presented in conjunction with those of our cross-sectional studies
of nine- to eleven-year-old children.
A CROSS-SECTIONAL COMPARISON OF FIVE- TO SEVEN-YEAR-OLD
CHILDREN PRIOR TO INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC TRAINING
For the past two years we have been conducting a longitudinal study of the effects
of music training on brain development and cognition in young children.23–25 The
major questions addressed were (1) whether there are pre-existing differences in
brain structure/function and/or cognitive skills in children just beginning to study a
musical instrument compared to those who are not; and (2) whether instrumental
training initiated between the ages of five and seven leads to cognitive enhancement
and stimulates regional brain growth in areas previously shown to be structurally dif-
ferent in adult musicians.4,5,10,21 We have tested fifty, five- to seven-year-old chil-
dren at baseline prior to beginning music lessons. Approximately two-thirds of those
children chose to take piano, while the other third chose string lessons. We have also
tested a smaller, untreated control group (currently n = 25) matched to the instrumen-
tal group in age, socioeconomic standard (SES), and verbal IQ. Each child under-
went a battery of behavioral tests, including the Object Assembly, Block Design, and
Vocabulary subtests from either the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children
(WISC-III) (for children six years and older) or the Wechsler Preschool and Primary
Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI-III) (for children under age six); the Raven’s Colored
Progressive Matrices (CPM) and Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (SPM); the

SCHLAUG et al.: EFFECTS OF MUSIC TRAINING ON THE CHILD’S BRAIN
223
Auditory Analysis Test26 as a measure of phonemic awareness; Gordon’s Primary
Measures of Music Audiation (PMMA) as a measure of musical skill/aptitude; and
two motor tests (an index finger tapping test and a motor sequencing task using four
fingers) to measure speed and dexterity in both right and left hands.
Children also underwent structural and functional MR scans of their brains using
a specially designed, child-appropriate protocol. MR images were acquired on a 3
Tesla General Electric Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Scanner. We found no
pre-existing cognitive, music, motor, or structural brain differences between the in-
strumental and control groups at baseline,25 thereby making it unlikely that children
who choose to play a musical instrument do so because they have atypical brains,
and suggesting that the brain atypicalities seen in adult musicians are more likely to
be the product of intensive music training rather than pre-existing biological markers
of musicality. The structural MR sequence had a spatial resolution of 1 × 1 × 1.5 mm.
We used a fully automatic technique for computational analysis of differences in
local gray and white matter.5,27 There were no differences in the absolute brain
volume, gray matter volume, white matter volume, or the midsagittal corpus callo-
FIGURE 3. Statistical parametric images superimposed on surface renderings of a
standardized anatomical brain depict significant group activations during rhythmic and me-
lodic discrimination tasks in five- to seven-year-old children, naive for instrumental music
training.

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sum size (for more details, see Ref. 25). A voxel-based analysis5,27 showed no sig-
nificant differences in regional gray matter volume between the two groups.
Our fMRI scanning protocol, specifically for young children, uses short scanning
runs, a sparse temporal sampling data acquisition technique,28 simple rhythmic (RD)
and melodic discrimination (MD) tasks with a button press response to indicate
same/different judgments for pairs of short musical phrases, and a child-oriented
MRI preparation session to overcome the challenges of scanning such young chil-
dren. The functional images from each musical condition (RD and MD) were
contrasted with the images from the silence condition (baseline) at a significance
threshold of P < .05, using a family-wise error (FWE) correction for multiple com-
parisons. Both musical conditions led to strong bilateral activation of the superior
temporal gyrus (STG; FIG. 3). A region in the right STG (slightly anterior and infe-
rior to Heschl’s gyrus) was found to show significantly higher activation during
melodic discrimination than during rhythmic discrimination (for more details, see
Ref. 23).
AFTER ONE YEAR OF INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC TRAINING
In our preliminary analyses (so far, only half of the children have completed their
second round of testing) of the effects of one year of music training, we found sig-
nificantly greater change scores in the instrumental group compared to the control
group in behavioral tests directly linked to instrumental music training: fine motor
skills (mean of 10% for the instrumental group compared to 5% for the control
group) and auditory discrimination skills, as measured by Gordon’s PMMA (1986)
(9% vs. 6%). Although we have not yet found evidence for transfer effects in do-
mains such as verbal, visual–spatial, and math after 14 months of observation, the
instrumental group showed trends in the anticipated direction. Brain data also sup-
port this trend. In the groups used for the preliminary analyses, there was a nonsig-
nificantly greater increase in gray matter volume in the instrumental group than in
the control group, but as yet, no significant change in corpus callosum size has
emerged. Since these between-group differences are likely to change as more sub-
jects are added to the analyses, we are also investigating the influence of practice in-
tensity on our behavioral outcomes and brain data within the instrumental music
group. Preliminary analyses of the fMRI data suggest that functional changes during
the melodic and rhythmic discrimination tasks occur after one year of instrumental
music learning in both the right and left hemisphere, mainly in auditory association
areas in the temporal lobe and temporal-parietal junction. No significant changes
were seen when the control group’s baseline was compared with their second set of
results 14 months later.
A CROSS-SECTIONAL COMPARISON OF NINE- TO
ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD CHILDREN: INSTRUMENTALISTS
VERSUS NONINSTRUMENTALISTS
We recently added a new cross-sectional comparison between a group of nine- to
eleven-year-old instrumentalists with an average of four years of training and a

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group of noninstrumentalists (matched in age, handedness, and SES) to our ongoing
longitudinal study. This group of children underwent the same battery of behavioral
tests and imaging studies as the children in our longitudinal group of five to seven
year olds did. The instrumental group performed significantly better than the well-
matched control group on the Gordon’s Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation
(primarily due to their superior performance in the tonal subtest), the maximal left
hand index finger tapping rate, and the Vocabulary subtest of the WISC-III. Strong,
nonsignificant trends were seen in the phonemic awareness test (Auditory Analysis),
the Raven’s Progessive Matrices, and the Key Math test. We did not find any signif-
icant differences in the Object Assembly or Block Design tests. Because the tasks of
reading music and playing an instrument call upon a wide variety of skills, there are
plausible explanations for why music training could lead to transfer effects in other
areas. For example, music training might enhance spatial reasoning because music
notation itself is spatial. Mathematical skills may well be enhanced by music learn-
ing because understanding rhythmic notation actually requires math-specific skills,
such as pattern recognition and an understanding of proportion, ratio, fractions, and
subdivision (e.g., a half note is twice as long as a quarter note, and a quarter note can
be evenly subdivided into four sixteenth notes). Phonemic awareness skills may be
improved by music training because both music and language processing require the
ability to segment streams of sound into small perceptual units.
The instrumentalists had significantly more gray matter volume (mean [SD] of
747 [75] cc compared to 661 [82] cc for the noninstrumental group) that was region-
ally pronounced not only in the sensorimotor cortex, but also in the occipital lobe
bilaterally (FIG. 4). FIGURE 4 shows the regional distribution of gray matter volume
differences when the instrumental group was compared with the noninstrumental
group on a voxel-by-voxel basis.29
The nine- to eleven-year-old children participated in the same functional imaging
experiments as the five to seven year olds in our longitudinal study (FIG. 5). Func-
tional images from each musical condition (RD and MD) were contrasted with the
images from the silence (control) condition at a significance threshold of P < .05,
using a FWE correction for multiple comparisons. Preliminary analysis of all group
comparisons revealed that both the instrumental and noninstrumental groups showed
strong bilateral activation of the STG. However, the instrumental group showed
more activation of the STG, particularly on the right, and also more activation of the
posterior inferior and middle frontal gyrus in both hemispheres (more so in the MD
than in the RD task). This trend of additional extratemporal lobe activation was
found to be further increased in a group of adult subjects with long-term, intensive
instrumental music training who also performed these functional tasks. This data is
not reported in detail here, although FIGURE 6 shows the pattern of activation for the
RD tasks in two adult groups (professional musicians vs. nonmusicians). Further, by
comparing FIGURE 6 with FIGURES 5 and 3, the increase in extratemporal lobe acti-
vation with maturity and greater length of instrumental training becomes apparent.
The inferior and middle frontal regions that are activated by these rhythmic and
melodic discrimination tasks may play a role in the integration of auditory events
into larger units, or the sequential ordering of behaviorally relevant auditory events.
The frontal and, in particular, the inferior frontal activations seen in auditory tasks
should be considered in the context of the discussion on mirror neurons. “Mirror”
neurons respond both when an action is observed and when that same action is per-

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FIGURE 6. Statistical parametric images superimposed on standardized anatomical
brains show significant activations during a melodic discrimination task in a group of pro-
fessional musicians and a matched group of nonmusicians.
formed. In addition to the sight and performance mirror neurons, a subset of mirror
neurons in monkeys also responds to the sound of an action.30,31 These “auditory–
visual” mirror neurons exemplify high-level abstraction in the representation of
action—an identical neural system becomes activated regardless of whether a partic-
ular action is heard, seen, or performed. This may have implications for music learn-
ing over time. As musical skills are acquired, the same kinds of action–sound
mappings occur.32 The student learns by watching the teacher and/or conductor, by
listening to the sounds that are produced by particular types of movement, by eval-
uating self-produced sounds either in isolation or in combination with sounds pro-
duced by other musicians, and by translating visual symbols into sound. Thus, it is
likely that mirror neurons may play an important role in instrumental music learning.
This notion is supported by the frontal activation that emerges in the nine- to eleven-
year-old group and becomes more prominent in the adult musician group.
SUMMARY
Preliminary results of our longitudinal study in five- to seven-year-old children
suggest that cognitive and brain effects from instrumental music training can be
found. After 14 months of observation, these effects are still small and in domains
such as fine motor and melodic discrimination that are closely related to the instru-
mental music training. Data from our cross-sectional study of nine- to eleven-year-
old children with an average of four years of musical training suggest that the pre-
dicted effects become stronger, and that transfer effects begin to emerge in addition
to those strong effects in closely related motor and auditory domains. Nevertheless,
our nine- to eleven-year-old cross-sectional study is correlational, and although it
supports the general trends seen across all three groups (from small, nonsignificant
trends in five- to seven-year-olds after 14 months of observation, to prominent
musician–nonmusician differences in adults), only an experimental study such as
our longitudinal study can prove causality and test the role of other predictors such
as intensity of training, skill at reading musical notation, and level of musical
achievement.