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Musical Training in Children Increases Brain Function

Update Date: Aug 22, 2012 09:33 AM EDT

Teaching children how to play an instrument can go a long way in improving and sustaining brain function in their adult years, say researchers at Northwestern University.

In a study that will be published in the Aug. 22 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers have directly examined what happens after children stop playing a musical instrument after only a few years.

Compared to persons with no musical training, adults with an average of one to five years' experience in playing a musical instrument or studying music had enhanced brain responses to complex sounds, making them more effective at pulling out the fundamental frequency of sound signals.

"Thus, musical training as children makes better listeners later in life," Nina Kraus a Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Communication Sciences at Northwestern told the press.

"Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain," she continues, "the study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning."

Kraus reveals that her work, unlike other neurological studies that focus on children and their prolonged career in music through high school and college, reaches a larger sect of the population that starts playing and then eventually stops.  

Washing away the anger most parents feel over spending time and money teaching adolescence to play an instrument they ultimately abandon, she finds that learning an instrument, regardless of how long it is played, can have long-lasting positive outcomes.

For the study, young adults with varying amounts of past musical training were tested by measuring electrical signals from the auditory brainstem in response to eight complex sounds ranging in pitch.

Forty-five adults were grouped into three age- and IQ- matched groups based on histories of musical instruction. One group had no musical instruction; another had 1 to 5 years; and the other had to 6 to 11 years. Both musically trained groups began instrumental practice around age 9, a common age for in-school musical instruction to begin. As predicted, musical training during childhood led to more robust neural processing of sounds later in life.

The way people here sound today is affected by their experiences, or lack thereof, with music. Kraus hopes that her research will do more than just lay dormant in an academic journal and in fact directs her study toward educational policy makers.

 "We hope to use this new finding, in combination with past discoveries, to understand the type of education and remediation strategies, such as music classes and auditory-based training and learning that might be most effective in combating the negative impact of poverty," she said

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