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How just a few music lessons in childhood can permanently change your brain

It has been said that your past shapes your present. Playing a musical instrument changes the anatomy and function of the brain notes the study, "A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood," that appeared in the Aug. 22, 2012 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience. Now in a new article, Ani Patel, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and the author of “Music, Language, and the Brain,” says that while listening to music can be relaxing and contemplative, the idea that simply plugging in your iPod is going to make you more intelligent doesn’t quite hold up to scientific scrutiny, according to the July 22, 2014 Mindshift blog article, "Unpacking the Science: How Playing Music Changes the Learning Brain." You need to actually take music lessons or teach yourself how to play a musical instrument. Readers wonder whether learning notes works just as well as learning to play music by ear?

Patel says in that Mindshift article that “there’s now a growing body of work that suggests that actually learning to play a musical instrument does have impacts on other abilities.” These include speech perception, the ability to understand emotions in the voice and the ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously. How new is the field of scientifically studying music and its effects on the brain? The field opened up around 2000, and what scientists found revealed how learning to play a musical instrument impacts other abilities such as speech perception, the ability to understand emotions in the voice, and the ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously. Just listening to music isn't enough.

A little music training goes a long way, says another recent study, "A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood" appeared in the Aug. 22, 2012 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience. You also can check out the PDF file of this article online. Does practice make you smarter? After all, those with the 'genes' for music usually practice more than others without the 'music' gene. See, "Is There a Music Gene? - ABC News."

Practicing music for only few years in childhood helps improve adult brain. A little music training in childhood goes a long way in improving how the brain functions in adulthood when it comes to listening and the complex processing of sound, according to a new Northwestern University study.

The impact of music on the brain has been a hot topic in science in the past decade. Now Northwestern researchers for the first time have directly examined what happens after children stop playing a musical instrument after only a few years -- a common childhood experience

Compared to peers with no musical training, adults with one to five years of musical training as children had enhanced brain responses to complex sounds, making them more effective at pulling out the fundamental frequency of the sound signal. The fundamental frequency, which is the lowest frequency in sound, is crucial for speech and music perception, allowing recognition of sounds in complex and noisy auditory environments.

"Thus, musical training as children makes better listeners later in life," said Nina Kraus, according to the August 21, 2012 news release, "A little music training goes a long way." Kraus is the Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Communication Sciences at Northwestern. "Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain," she said, "the study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning."

"We help address a question on every parent's mind: 'Will my child benefit if she plays music for a short while but then quits training?'" Kraus said in the news release. Many children engage in group or private music instruction, yet, few continue with formal music classes beyond middle or high school. But most neuroscientific research has focused on the rare and exceptional music student who has continued an active music practice during college or on the rarer case of a professional musician who has spent a lifetime immersed in music.

The research looked at a larger section of the population who only took music lessons for a short time in childhood

"Our research captures a much larger section of the population with implications for educational policy makers and the development of auditory training programs that can generate long-lasting positive outcomes," Kraus said, according to the news release. 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. Because the brain signal is a faithful representation of the sound signal, researchers are able to observe how key elements of the sound are captured by the nervous system and how these elements might be weakened or strengthened in different people with different experiences and abilities.

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 years, 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

Prior research on highly trained musicians and early bilinguals revealed that enhanced brainstem responses to sound are associated with heightened auditory perception, executive function and auditory communication skills. "From this earlier research, we infer that a few years of music lessons also confer advantages in how one perceives and attends to sounds in everyday communication situations, such as noisy restaurants or rides on the "L," Kraus said, according to the news release.

A running theme in Kraus' research is that your past shapes your present. "The way you hear sound today is dictated by the experiences with sound you've had up until today," she said in the news release. "This new finding is a clear embodiment of this theme."

In past research, Kraus and her team examined how bilingual upbringing and long-term music lessons affect the auditory brain and how the brain changes after a few weeks of intensive auditory experiences, such as computerized training. Their current research focused on investigating the impact of socioeconomic hardships on adolescent brain function.

"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 that might be most effective in combating the negative impact of poverty," she said, according to the news release. By understanding the brain's capacity to change and then maintain these changes, the research can inform the development of effective and long-lasting auditory-based educational and rehabilitative programs.

Music lessons won't necessarily make you smarter. But another recent study shows just 30 minutes of musical training can increase blood flow to the left hemisphere, the area of the brain that controls language. You may wish to check out the article, "Music Impacts Our Brains: Blood Flow Increases After Musical Training."

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