By Diane Cole
for National Geographic
PUBLISHED JANUARY 3, 2014
Are music lessons the way to get smarter?
That’s what a lot of parents (and experts) believe: Studying an instrument gives children an advantage in the development of their intellectual, perceptual, and cognitive skills. This may, however, turn out to be wishful thinking. Two new randomized trials have found no evidence for the belief. The IQs of preschoolers who attended several weeks of music classes as part of these studies did not differ significantly from the IQs of those who had not.
But that does not mean that the advantages of learning to play music are limited to expressing yourself, impressing friends, or just having fun. A growing number of studies show that music lessons in childhood can do something perhaps more valuable for the brain than childhood gains: provide benefits for the long run, as we age, in the form of an added defense against memory loss, cognitive decline, and diminished ability to distinguish consonants and spoken words.
Not only that, you may well get those benefits even if you haven’t tickled the ivories, strummed the guitar, or unpacked your instrument from its case in years. And dividends could even be in store if you decide to pick up an instrument for the very first time in midlife or beyond.
The reason is that musical training can have a “profound” and lasting impact on the brain, creating additional neural connections in childhood that can last a lifetime and thus help compensate for cognitive declines later in life, says neuropsychologist Brenda Hanna-Pladdy of Emory University in Atlanta. Those many hours spent learning and practicing specific types of motor control and coordination (each finger on each hand doing something different, and for wind and brass instruments, also using your mouth and breathing), along with the music-reading and listening skills that go into playing an instrument in youth, are all factors contributing to the brain boost that shows up later in life.
Musical Training Grows Your Brain
You can even map the impact of musical training on the brain: In a 2003 study, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug found that the brains of adult professional musicians had a larger volume of gray matter than the brains of nonmusicians had. Schlaug and colleagues also found that after 15 months of musical training in early childhood, structural brain changes associated with motor and auditory improvements begin to appear.
Still other studies have shown an increase in the volume of white matter. Such findings speak to the brain’s plasticity—its ability to change or adapt in response to experience, environment, or behavior. It also shows the power of musical training to enhance and build connections within the brain.
“What’s unique about playing an instrument is that it requires a wide array of brain regions and cognitive functions to work together simultaneously, in both right and left hemispheres of the brain,” says Alison Balbag, a professional harpist who began musical training at the age of five, holds a doctorate in music, and is currently earning her Ph.D. in gerontology (with a special focus on the impact of music on health throughout the life span) at the University of Southern California. Playing music may be an efficient way to stimulate the brain, she says, cutting across a broad swath of its regions and cognitive functions and with ripple effects through the decades.
The Longer You Played an Instrument, the Better
More research is showing this might well be the case. In Hanna-Pladdy’s first study on the subject, published in 2011, she divided 70 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 83 into three groups: musicians who had studied an instrument for at least ten years, those who had played between one and nine years, and a control group who had never learned an instrument or how to read music. Then she had each of the subjects take a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests.
The group who had studied for at least ten years scored the highest in such areas as nonverbal and visuospatial memory, naming objects, and taking in and adapting new information. By contrast, those with no musical training performed least well, and those who had played between one and nine years were in the middle.
In other words, the more they had trained and played, the more benefit the participants had gained. But, intriguingly, they didn’t lose all of the benefits even when they hadn’t played music in decades.
Hanna-Pladdy’s second study, published in 2012, confirmed those findings and further suggested that starting musical training before the age of nine (which seems to be a critical developmental period) and keeping at it for ten years or more may yield the greatest benefits, such as increased verbal working memory, in later adulthood. That long-term benefit does not depend on how much other education you received in life.
Starting musical training before age nine and continuing for a decade may yield the greatest benefits.
“We found that the adults who benefited the most in older age were those with lower educational levels,” she says. “[Musical training] could be making up for the lack of cognitive stimulation they had academically.” She points to the important role music education can play, especially at a time when music curricula are falling prey to school system budget cuts.
Playing Music Improves Your Ability to Discern Sounds
Neuroscientist Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in Chicago found still more positive effects on older adults of early musical training—this time, in the realm of hearing and communication. She measured the electrical activity in the auditory brainstems of 44 adults, ages 55 to 76, as they responded to the synthesized speech syllable “da.” Although none of the subjects had played a musical instrument in 40 years, those who had trained the longest—between four and fourteen years—responded the fastest.
That’s significant, says Kraus, because hearing tends to decline as we age, including the ability to quickly and accurately discern consonants, a skill crucial to understanding and participating in conversation.
“If your nervous system is not keeping up with the timing necessary for encoding consonants—did you say bill or pill or fill, or hat or that—even if the vowel part is understood,” you will lose out on the flow and meaning of the conversation, says Kraus, and that can potentially lead to a downward spiral of feeling socially isolated.
The reason, she speculates, may be that musical training focuses on a very precise connection between sound and meaning. Students focus on the note on a page and the sound that it represents, on the ways sounds do (and don’t) go together, on passages that are to be played with a specific emotion. In addition, they’re using their motor system to create those sounds through their fingers.
“All of these relationships have to occur very precisely as you learn to play, and perhaps you carry that with you throughout your life,” she says. The payoff is the ability to discern specific sounds—like syllables and words in conversation—with greater clarity.
There may be other potentially significant listening and hearing benefits in later life as well, she suspects, though she has not yet tested them. “Musicians throughout their lives, and as they age, hear better in noisy environments,” she says. “Difficulty in hearing words against a noisy background is a common complaint among people as they get older.”
In addition, the fact that musical training appears to enhance auditory working memory—needed to improvise, memorize, play in time, and tune your instrument—might help reinforce in later life the memory capacity that facilitates communication and conversation.
You Can Start Now
It’s not too late to gain benefits even if you didn’t take up an instrument until later in life. Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida, Tampa, studied the impact of indihvidual piano instruction on adults between the ages of 60 and 85. After six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.
More research on the subject is forthcoming from Bugos and from other researchers in what appears to be a burgeoning field. Hervé Platel, a professor of neuropsychology at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, France, is embarking on a neuroimaging study of healthy, aging nonmusicians just beginning to study a musical instrument.
And neuroscientist Julene Johnson, a professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco, is now investigating the possible cognitive, motor, and physical benefits garnered by older adults who begin singing in a choir after the age of 60. She’ll also be looking the psychosocial and quality-of-life aspects.
“People often shy away from learning to play a musical instrument at a later age, but it’s definitely possible to learn and play well into late adulthood,” Bugos says.
Moreover, as a cognitive intervention to help aging adults preserve, and even build, skills, musical training holds real promise. “Musical training seems to have a beneficial impact at whatever age you start. It contains all the components of a cognitive training program that sometimes are overlooked, and just as we work out our bodies, we should work out our minds.”
Sure, your friends might laugh when you sit down at the piano, but your brain may well have the last laugh.
Tips for Hiring the Right Musician
I’ve worked in the music industry for a long time. Unless you’re in the entertainment industry, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between an exceptional musician and a mediocre one. There are a lot of weekend warriors and garage band hobbyists who are great at the art of promoting themselves, but are not necessarily great musicians.
I’ve been asked many times how to hire the right musician. Hopefully these tips will help you make the right decision:
1. Know your audience. Seniors are less likely to enjoy Top 40 and conversely, the under 25 age group is less likely to enjoy a good waltz. Choose the music that will suit the majority of the attendees. A versatile band can do both: start early in the evening for the older crowd then turn up the energy with Top 40 music for the night owls. Otherwise, you may need to budget more money for two separate bands.
2. Know your budget. As with many things, with live music, you get what you pay for. The more experienced, professional musicians may charge more than your average garage band, but the quality shows. For a four hour solo performance, you can expect to pay around $600+, $1200+ for a trio and $4000+ for a full band. Costs will vary depending on the size of the band, number of hours, required equipment, experience, travel costs, etc.
DID YOU KNOW: It’s often more cost effective to hire the band directly versus hiring through an agent. Some agencies can charge 2X or even 3X the initial cost of the entertainment from hidden commission fees. A reputable agency will always have the purchaser and the artist’s signatures on the same contract which keeps all costs transparent to both parties. 20% is the international entertainment industry standard for a commission.
3. Do your research. The musician should have a web presence with their own website. Do Google searches, ask for videos on YouTube, follow them on Twitter. If they’re good, you’ll find them online.
4. Ask for references. Are they reliable? Did they play great music? More importantly, ask the reference if they would hire the musician again.
5. Sign a contract. Experienced professional musicians should have their own contracts, which outline the date, set up and performance times, venue, deposit, overall fee, type of music, dress code, food and refreshments, travel costs, accommodations, technical requirements, special requests (such as the first dance or a birthday) and more.
6. Deposits. Expect to pay a 50% deposit 30 days prior to the event date to officially book the musician. The deposit is often non-refundable. Full payment is required immediately after the performance.
7. Book Early. Try to book as far in advance as possible – 6 months is recommended for special occasions. Good musicians are booked months in advance.
8. Follow up. Contact the musician about a week prior to your event to confirm details. If you don’t hear from them between the time you signed the contract to the week before your event, don’t worry. Musicians often have other jobs or keep odd hours and may not have the time to call you.
9. Making changes. It’s not recommended to make major changes to the contract close to the date. This includes playlists, time and venue. It takes time to learn songs and produce music sheets for the band. Also, it’s not unusual for the musician to have another booking on the same day, so a change in schedule or venue may be difficult to accommodate.
10. Appoint a Point Person. Let the musician know who to contact for technical requirements, equipment delivery, set up, refreshments, general communication and payment.
11. Get Social. If you liked the musician, support them on social media, recommend them or provide a testimonial for their website. It’s tough work being a musician, so your support is absolutely appreciated.