Psychologists have discovered that musical training not only changes the way young children’s brains respond to sounds – it also boosts their memory performance.
Takako Fujioka and colleagues looked at how the brains of 12 children aged between 4 and 6 years responded to two sounds – a violin tone and a burst of white noise. The children were tested on four occasions over the course of a year, during which time half of them received Suzuki music tuition.
Our brains show a characteristic wave of activity in the auditory cortex when we hear a sound. Using magnetoencephalography, the researchers found that in the children’s brains, this pattern of activity changed over the course of a year, probably reflecting the maturation of their brains. But crucially, there was an aspect of this changing brain response – between 100 and 400ms after hearing a sound – that distinguished between the groups. In the untrained children the altered response was observed in both cerebral hemispheres and after hearing either the white noise or violin. But in the musically trained children, the change was localised to the left hemisphere and was specific to the violin.
“Musical training resulted in specific changes in the responses to musical sounds but not to responses to noise stimuli, probably reflecting the development of neuronal networks specialised for important sounds experienced in the environment”, the researchers said.
Moreover, from the beginning of the year to the end, the musically trained children, but not the untrained children, showed an improvement in their memory span for numbers. “It suggests that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention” said co-researcher Laurel Trainor. “It is clear that music is good for children's cognitive development and that music should be part of the pre-school and primary school curriculum” Takako Fujioka added.
Fujioka, T., Ross, B., Kakigi, R., Pantev, C. & Trainor, L.J. (2006). One year of musical training affects development of auditory cortical-evoked fields in young children. Brain, 129, 2593-2608. Open acess.