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Playing music benefits the brain

The Hudziak experiment proves that playing music is as much an exercise to the brain as working out in a gym is to the body

More than a decade ago, there was great buzz in the press and media on something that was tantalizingly referred to as “The Mozart Effect”. Some researchers claimed that school students performed better in tests as they were listening to music by the great European classical music composer Mozart. Compared to them, another set of students (control group, same age, same background and so forth) who took the same tests, but with no Mozart in the background, did less well. This news spread like wildfire and parents began playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to their children with the hope of elevating their performance, and hopefully IQ values as well.

Several questions were raised about this Mozart effect, both in the professional and popular press. Is it reproducible (not always, low sample size)? Does listening to music only calm the mind and focus it to the task on hand? Why Mozart, why not Beethoven, Bach or Beatles? Why only western music, and not Carnatic, Hindustani, Japanese or even soothing chants? Is the effect temporary or long-lasting? Do lullabies make infants smarter, besides sleep-inducing?

Many of these questions were attempted to be answered by a variety of experiments — amateur and professional — and the overall consensus appears to be that music is good for you, but as far as the Mozart Effect goes, the jury is still out.

A more scientifically challenging question here is whether music makes noticeable change in your cognitive abilities, and affect and alter the brain in perceptible ways. Is listening to music as a passive recipient sufficient, or should one actively engage in music — singing solo or in groups, playing an instrument, and improvising more effectively? Note that in the latter case, you are actually exerting and exercising your brain. In other words, listening to Mozart, or to play Mozart — which would be a better or true “Mozart Effect”?

A few scientific groups have studied this issue, and one such recent paper titled: “Can playing Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” and other music improve kids’ brains?” throws some light on the issue. The group chose not Mozart but the Russian composer Pyotr Iliych Tchaikovsky (though that is not relevant here). The team, led by Prof. James Hudziak at the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, have published their results on the relation between playing musical instruments and brain development (see (in J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry, Dec 2014.DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac-2014.06.015 show). In their study, they monitored the brains of 232 children (age 6-18) who were practising and playing musical instruments (performing the Tchaikovsky piece). Scanning the brains was done using functional MRI. These scans showed changes in the thickness of the cortex (outer layer of the brain) of the practising children with time. Such cortical thickness occurred in specific regions of the brain, called motor areas, involved in “control and coordination of movement, executive functioning including working memory, attention control, as well as organisation and planning for the future”.

The Hudziak experiment points out that playing music actually is as much an exercise to the brain as working out in a gym is to the body, and that it is not one-off or temporary, but offers long term benefits. While their paper is not available free to download (open source), readers can click on and read the site www.sciencedaily/com/releases/2014/12/141223132546.htm which not only summarises the Hudziak report but also offers several related studies that point to the benefits to the brain and cognition gained by playing and practising music.

A report by Drs. Amy Spray and G. Meyer of the University of Liverpool notes that music training can increase blood flow in the brain, in particular the left hemisphere, in areas that are shared by language.

Another particularly fascinating study is the one by Dr Charles Limb and colleagues from the Johns Hopkins University. They too monitored musicians, this time a jazz group, using a specially contrived fMRI set up, with plastic keyboards and so on (so as to avoid metals which interfere with the MRI instrument). The scanning was done real-time as the members of the jazz group (adults, age range 25-56) interacted with one another and improvised on the spot, ex-tempore (as jazz musicians often do, similar to the ‘sawal-jawab’ that our musicians in India do, a la Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Rajan-Sajan Mishra, Ranjini-Gayathri, Umayalpuram-Ghatam Giridhar Udupa) , essentially carrying on a musical conversation as it were. Their brain scans during this exchange showed that they were using areas associated with syntax and spoken language! Each partner uses syntactic areas of his/her brain to process what she/he is hearing so as to respond by playing a new series of notes/beats — a true act of creation! The Limb paper is available free on the net at (PLosOne 2014, 9(2)e88665 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088665).

While at it, may I also refer you to the excellent TED-lesson by Anita Collins, titled “How playing an instrument benefits your brain;” click at (http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-playing-an-instrument-benefits-your-brain-anita-collins), and you will enjoy it.

D. BALASUBRAMANIAN, posted on www.thehindu.com