Musical training may help the brainstem choose

Musical training may help children pay attention in class. Researchers at Northwestern University’s auditory neuroscience laboratory have been studying the translation of sound waves into brain waves. They are able to play the brain wave out loud and compare it to the sound wave that triggered it, according to Chicago Public Radio.

Those with musical training may be better at picking out an important or complicated sound in a room than those without. Doctoral student Dana Strait says: “Musicians spend so much time manipulating to the sound from their instruments, listening to the output from their teacher and mimicking it, communicating musically with other perfumers. And that can translate into how we process speech.”

It makes intuitive sense. But it is remarkable that the researchers can actually play these brain waves. I wonder what would happen if research subjects listened, let’s say, to a Donne poem several times. What happens to the brain wave sounds the second or third time around, and how does musical training affect this? I imagine musical training may affect not only how we take in what we hear the first time, but how we listen to it the second and third times.

The researchers are not saying that music alone has these effects. It is musical training–the practice of listening to music closely and grasping what is in it–that makes the difference they describe.


  1. This makes sense. I taught 2 years at an Arts School. I noticed that the instrumental music students were best academically – especially in math and science. They were apparently accustomed to looking for patterns, but also to perseverance in their thinking. They persisted in tasks better than the average student, which translated into being able to master difficult material.

    The dramatic students were the worst academically – impatient, easily frustrated, giving up too easily.

    Perhaps not surprising.

  2. I remember the Chinese did a study awhile back that tied Music to math achievement, so this is not surprising.

  3. Didn’t see any discussion of confounding in the article. Which would seem necessary as all the work so far appears to be observational. But it also looks like they are going to attempt an experiment, good for them.

  4. What about nursery rhymes, and memorization of poems? Children used to hear many nursery rhymes and songs while growing up. Now, the same time is devoted to television, a very different medium.

    Traditionally, students were required to memorize and recite poems. Could that also help to improve attention?

  5. Even though I’m a really big supporter of music programs in schools, I hate all of these reports of cause and effect between music and academics. What are we talking about here? Has anyone tried to quantify this? I call this the brain research misdirection technique. Let’s look at how they brain works because it can’t possibly be the stinking, lousy math curricula being used in K-8!

    What is the problem that is being solved; make good students even better in math or help kids get over some pathetically low NCLB cutoff? I don’t see any cause and effect either way. My son is very good in music and math. Both are the effects of something else. I grew up in a family of 4 where we all played intstruments. I see no cause and effect between music and math, at least not enough to make any difference. Someone may show some sort of brain wave connection, but what does that really mean? The music program helped motivate my brother deal with so many things he didn’t like about our high school. That’s a different issue. More likely, music helps kids learn about the importance of skills and practice. Imagine! You don’t just give “real world” music to kids and let them discover how to play it with the conductor as the guide on the side.

    So, music and sports can focus on skills because there is no real need for understanding as with academics? No, I think that the love of in-class, group, top-down learning in academics is about trading high expectations for motivation. Rather than separate kids based on ability or willingness to learn, schools reduce expectations. One could design a rigorous discovery or constructivist learning environment, but that’s not what’s going on.

    There is always the pedagogical question about how much time you spend on scales, finger exercises and study pieces like Czerny, Hanon, or Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, but it’s nowhere near the silliness demonstrated by the K-12 educational community. Spending more time learning skills in the context of “real world” pieces is perhaps more motivational (at the start) than practice exercises, but it takes more time to achieve mastery, or mastery never quite gets done. You trade motivation for efficiency and full mastery. I see it in my son in piano playing. his technical abilitites are now limiting his musicality. The ability to work hard on things that are not fun must take over when motivation fades, as it always will.

    In academics, however, educators seem to think that mastery of basic skills is not necessary. It’s all about the process. With Everyday Math, it’s “trust the spiral”. Now, it’s “trust the music”. Why not exactly define the problem and tackle it directly? Don’t trust. Ensure. Work hard.

  6. Diana Senechal says:


    I agree with you wholeheartedly that schools put too much emphasis on process. And like you, I am skeptical of arguments that music improves academic work. Can’t the music and the academics be taught for their own sake, on their own terms? And can’t we teach the hard stuff without trying to mitigate it?

    Yet I don’t think that’s the point of the research. It does not seem that the researchers are promoting a particular pedagogical approach. They are simply observing how the brain selects what to hear. And they find so far that those with musical training may be particularly good at such selection.

    I was fascinated (and a little frightened) by the idea of playing a brain wave’s sound out loud. I was also intrigued by the idea that people with musical training are good at selecting sounds in a classroom.

    This does not mean that schools should provide “musical training” in order to improve academics. The findings are interesting but tentative; they should not be translated into policy. And even if the study of music does improve academics, it should not be subordinated to that purpose.

    Diana Senechal

  7. I have no problem with the research, just how it might be used. That was my point. It happens all of the time. It’s the Mozart effect. I cringe at that. People use it to keep schools from cutting the music program. It’s really sad if the arguments get to that level.

    It also directs the discussion away from more important problems. Let’s talk about the wonders of discovery and how the brain works so that we don’t have to examine the details about why little Johnnie can’t multiply 6 * 7. Let’s have him play an instrument! Let’s guess and check somewhere else.

  8. There’s a flip side to this that also needs to be considered. The most interesting sound in the room might not be the person upon whom one is supposed to focus. Just from my own perspective, a side conversation, or a strange beeping sound, someone rapping rhythmically on the table, or even the tune going through the back of my mind during a less-than-captivating meeting/class/presentation can suddenly become the center of my focus because it is the most interesting thing to my mental ear. Or, I can be listening with very intent focus to a recording of music or something on the radio and become nearly oblivious to someone talking to me. Like every human ability, a musician’s ear comes with upsides and downsides.

  9. On the subject of music improving academics, I don’t think there’s anything inherent to musical study that improves academics. If the same sort of discipline and focus on results that is present in musical study was brought to bear on academics, this debate would not be occurring. Instead, too many people who don’t know the depths of discipline, repetition, and plain old hard work that go into the endeavor grasp for any correlation between musical aptitude to buttress their belief that academic success can be had by means other than discipline, hard work, and a focus on results.

    Can’t the music and the academics be taught for their own sake, on their own terms? And can’t we teach the hard stuff without trying to mitigate it?

    I sure wish more people would ask this. Thanks, Diana!


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