The Importance of Music to Brain Development

  • 01/3/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory.” Oscar Wilde

For many years there has been a growing debate between those who claim that music has a profound, even miraculous effect on the overall development of various areas of the brain and those who simply hold fast to the notion that music is a superfluous activity that can be tossed aside or eliminated from our public schools at the capricious whims of our spendthrift and opulently wasteful politicians. There are those who claim that children who are exposed to music at a young age have advanced capacities for math, memory, literacy, and in general overall intelligence (often measured by I.Q. or the Intelligence Quotient) and those who simply disagree, arguing vehemently that music and art are “extracurricular” and consequently not as fundamentally necessary to education or to the well-being of children in general. Fortunately, there is an almost unbelievable preponderance of evidence supporting the former and reinforcing my personal belief, as well as the beliefs of many musicians like myself, that music is not only important to overall brain development but is, in fact, integral to the optimal development of many crucial areas of the brain.

Music and Math

As most people know, music and math are inexorably bound on a number of different levels. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, perhaps best known amongst math enthusiasts (and not-so-enthuisiastic 10th grade math students) for his Pythagorean Theory where a²+b²=c², is also renown for his method of tuning utilizing the concept of the perfect fifth (see for a more in-depth analysis of perfect intervals). Intervals having a perfect fifth between them in a given scale can be viewed in the ratio of 2:3 and equally as important, the interval between the 1st and eight note in a scale (an octave) can be viewed as 1:2. As interesting as these ratios are by themselves it's even more insightful to understand them as representative of the wavelengths of given pitches. Those tones having complementary wavelengths, or more precisely having peaks and troughs that coincide with each other are more likely to sound good together creating consonance (agreement, harmony, accord), and those having disparate peaks and troughs are more likely to create dissonance (lack of agreement, discord). A basic understanding of this relationship can be helpful to any musician hoping to gain a deeper understanding of intervals and scales, or to singers attempting to harmonize with one another. And although Pythagoras' theories were simply a foundation upon which many later brilliant mathematicians would construct their axioms, he showed a clear relationship between math and music.

Followers and believers alike of Pythagoras' theories have come to be known as the Pythagorean Brotherhood and embrace the following tenets:

1. Music is geometry, and geometry is music.
2 Music theory is fundamentally about ratios of numbers.
3. The harmonic nature of music demonstrates the great harmony of creation.
4. Every musical tone or pulse is made up of the sum of many pure sine-waves.
5. Those who learn music do better at mathematics (and vice versa).

As mentioned previously, there is a great deal of statistical evidence supporting this last point although the connection is certainly not cut-and-dried. One study published in the journal known as “Nature” found that when groups of 1st graders were exposed to games involving rhythm and pitch and music instruction geared towards sequential skill development, they scored higher in particular areas of math utilizing spatial temporal reasoning than their 1st grade counterparts receiving “traditional” musical training. An important distinction to make here is the difference between two specific types of reasoning:

1. Spatial Temporal (ST) Reasoning - Utilized in activities where one needs to think ahead in several steps or moves, i.e. playing Chess or perhaps improvisational musicianship; key activities in this category include visualization or transformation of images in space and time, an integral ability to understanding Geometry and certain areas of Calculus.

2. Language Analytical (LA) Reasoning - Utilized in solving equations and seeking a quantitative result.

The phenomenon known as the “Mozart Effect” comes into play here and can be described as the tendency of individuals to experience a short-term enhancement of spatial temporal reasoning after listening to Mozart's music. A woman by the name of Fran Rauscher, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin showed that a group of college students who listened to “Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos” in D major experienced an improvement in their spatial reasoning skills, compared to students who listened to other varieties of music.

Specially designed CD's and programs touting the value of classical music to the developing baby's brain hit the stores and disappeared as quickly as it was stocked, despite many raised eyebrows and naysayers in the scientific community. Some have even gone as far as to claim that fetuses still enjoying the comfort of the mother's womb may be reaping some of the benefits of Mozart's music while the mother listens or even while she is fast asleep.

Many question the validity of the Mozart effect attributing changes in baby's mood or subsequent brilliance in particular areas of math to the relaxing qualities of certain types of music or other extraneous factors, but there are those who believe they have isolated the specific physical reasons why certain types of music seem to be having beneficial effects on the human (and rat's) brain. Researchers, including the aforementioned Rauscher believe they have found the molecular basis for the Mozart Effect utilizing experiments performed on rats. Increases were found in neuron density in particular areas of the brain often associated with memory learning and synapse growth. Rats exposed to white noise did not experience these same changes, leading some to tout the value of music especially Mozart's music to the brain.

Other interesting research has shown a clear connection between music, spatial reasoning and the possibility that human beings are pre-wired to music and specifically rhythm. In what's known as the “Trion Model.” Researchers have conceptualized the organization of the human cerebral cortex as being organized in columns. These columns are made up of individual subunits known as “Trions” which when excited are said to form the basis for many higher brain activities including spatial temporal, memory and other higher brain functions. What is remarkable about this research is that scientists have found particular patterns that occur naturally amongst the columns of Trions which seem to correspond with specific pitches of certain instruments. In other words, the brain seems to be predisposed to music and is in fact in tune (pun intended) with music from inception. Young children may in fact be able to access music as a sort of “pre-language” that is accessible to them even before they're able to utilize other forms of language ( Any performing musician has likely witnessed this phenomenon when observing that the first crowd participant to begin swaying to the beat, and perhaps even hypnotically dancing is the small cherubic child in the corner of the restaurant. Children seem to be naturally inclined towards music and the Trion Model is perhaps one explanation for this phenomenon. Yes, the unabashed child has not yet learned to be ashamed like her parents and as our culture eventually teaches the young, but there seems to be an innate rhythmic quality with which children dance that is seemingly untaught.

Music and Memory

In addition to the remarkable increases that children have enjoyed in terms of spatial temporal reasoning as well as commensurate advances in math skills, early exposure to music has also been seen to affect and improve memory skills and retention.

One interesting study enacted at McMaster University in Canada looked at the relationship between music lessons involving the Suzuki method of training, and subsequent memory enhancement. The Suzuki method is based on the notion that children learn better and more rapidly when taught in a nurturing, socially stimulating environment, and are taught music before they learn to read, preferably before the age of 5. ( Suzuki was used in this case because the methodology dictates that students are all trained in the same way, as opposed to other methods which educate based on subject's previous skill level or parent's wishes. The McMaster study took 12 children ranging in age from 4-6 years old and divided them into two groups. The first group partook of no music training at all while the second group participated in Suzuki training. Both groups of children, the Suzuki group as well as the non-lesson group were exposed to two different sets of tones, one containing bursts of white noise and the other recorded tones of the violin.

The ultimate goal of the study was to investigate how auditory responses in the subjects changed over the year-long span of the procedure and how those responses reflected (or not) changes in memory function. Using devices that measure small changes in magnetic fields outside of the head, researchers were able to determine that all of the children, those receiving no musical training as well as those receiving the Suzuki training, showed changes that reflected that their memories had indeed improved over time. But, those in the Suzuki group improved more and in fact when tested in other areas central to memory and intelligence, they showed improvements on multiple levels including literacy, verbal memory, mathematics and general I.Q. The study reinforces the notion that those subjected to music at a young age frequently experience benefits beyond the simple acquisition of musical skills that stretches into other areas of cognitive functioning as well. (

In 1982 a simple experiment was enacted utilizing 300 graduates, and post graduates all with PhD's. The subjects were then split into two groups, the first was asked to learn a group of words and their definitions in a quiet room. The second group was given the same list of words but with music played quietly in the background. The results showed a significant difference between the number of words recalled by the two groups where the initial non-music group recalled almost none of the words learned while the music group were able to remember most of them. (Music and the Mind, audio lecture, Michael Ballam). This study has potentially interesting applications especially for those who are in school and attempting to memorize a series of facts and/or figures, or are simply studying for an exam. Of note though, there is a substantial body of evidence that has shown the importance of finding the “right” kind of music and the fact that whether an individual enjoys that variety of music or not can dictate its efficacy as a catalyst for learning and memory.

Another study done by a student named David Merrill did an interesting experiment with mice and two different varieties of music. Both groups ran the maze and were timed to create a baseline measure. Then the first group was exposed to 24 hours of classical music while the other was exposed to heavy metal. Both groups were then set free to wander through the maze again and timed for any changes in performance. Shockingly though, the heavy metal mice were incited by the music and actually showed extreme levels of violence towards one another. The experiment was cut short because some of the mice had actually killed one another! But in a follow-up experiment utilizing the same two varieties of music, mice exposed to Mozart music did show an improvement in maze progress while those in the heavy metal group showed declines in performance. Fortunately, there were no mice-related fatalities in this particular group.

Music and Literacy

The topic of music and its relative effect on literacy has received a great deal of attention over the last 40 years especially when applied to children and our public schools. Numerous studies have been born with the intent of showing the positive correlation between music and higher levels of literacy and predicated on the notion that schools combining music with reading programs will aid children struggling in those areas. The implications are broad especially in lieu of the fact that most schools are held accountable for their levels of literacy (as well as Math, Sciences etc etc) and can lose precious funding if students do not perform at national standards.

A study done in 1975 looked at whether musical training improved reading performance in 1st graders. The entire population of youngsters was made up of students who were matched in age, relative I.Q. and socioeconomic status. The control group was given no musical instruction, while the experimental group was allowed to listen to certain folk songs with an emphasis on listening skills and melody and rhythm. The results were remarkable and statistically significant as the control group scored in the 72nd percentile while the music group scored in the 88th.

Another intriguing study done in 1993 examined the effects of music upon the acquisition of the English language in a group of children with limited proficiency in the language. A group of 48 second-graders with a history of difficulties acquiring new vocabulary were taught words from the English language, some of the children receiving no accompaniment with the vocabulary while others received music and/or illustrations with the words. Vocabulary gains were higher when music accompanied the words and highest when music and illustrations were used together. Further research has been done in this area focusing specifically on improvements in linguistic ability and literacy amongst children who listen frequently to music with words. In what's known as “secondary language acquisition” children who have been exposed to lyrically rich music have shown vast improvements in vocabulary acquisition compared to children who listen to instrumental music or no music at all.

Further studies on the powerful effects of music upon language acquisition delve deeper into the underlying strata of language and its similarities to music. Gaining a familiarity of the individual parts of language is paramount though as well as a knowledge of what is known as “phonemic awareness.” (Adams,M.(1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). “Phonemic awareness,” according to researchers in the field of linguistics, is an understanding that words can be divided into a sequence of phonemes (individual units of speech), and the greater a child's “awareness,” the more likely he or she will be successful at acquiring fundamental reading skills.

Music can also be broken down into a series of parts and pieces labeled conveniently as notes and phrases which, interestingly enough, are similar in certain ways to language. As mentioned above in reference to Trions and pre-programmed regions of the cerebral cortex, music has particular peaks and valleys that also correspond to peaks and valleys in language. Because of the similarities between language and music on certain levels, the human brain processes music and language in very similar ways. Researchers are finding that musical instruction can have positive effects on phonemic awareness and consequently on the child's ability to acquire critical reading skills.

One remarkable program to surface as a result of the preponderance of evidence supporting the value of music is called ABC Music and Me (owned by Kindermusic or literally “Children's music”). This highly coveted and much revered system was created in the light of the brilliant German composer and educator Carl Orff, Zoltan Kodaly, a Hungarian composer and educator, and elements of the Suzuki method with certain prescribed notions in mind:

1. Every parent is the child's most important teacher.
2. Every child is musical.
3. Home is the most important learning environment.
4. Music nurtures a child's emotional, cognitive, social and physical environment.
5. Every child should experience the joy, fun and learning which music brings.

Basically the program combines music with movement but tailors the classes to the age group and subsequent attention span of the children in that particular group. But ultimately, the classes are designed to improve verbal and listening skills and bring about improvements in the areas of reading and vocabulary. Interaction with musical instruments is interspersed between activities in specific time allotments clinically designed to enhance other skills and bring about improvements in the various areas. Kindermusic also offers programs geared towards teaching specifically with Classical music and also teaching sign language to youngsters who are either hearing impaired or simply have supportive parents who desire that facet in their child's curriculum. (

Music and Intelligence

A broader definition of intelligence, and one that will likely fulfill our needs more adequately as creative and sentient beings, would be the theory of Multiple Intelligences developed by Dr. Howard Gardner. According to Gardner, intelligence is not a single entity defined by abilities and proclivities in one specific area or another, but rather a series of a number of different abilities and intelligences often defined culturally. He came up with an initial list of seven types of intelligence: Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Musical (he believed that this type runs parallel to linguistic intelligence), Body Kinesthetic (ability to use one's body to solve problems), Spatial, Interpersonal (capacity to understand feelings, intentions, desires of others) and Intrapersonal (self-understanding). (

Gardner's theories have revolutionized the field of education on many levels but have also created some conundrums for those attempting to measure intelligence. After all, educators struggled with measuring ones intelligence (see Stanford Binet) how would they contend with measuring 7? But regardless of the intrinsic difficulties of attempting to define and describe such an intangible concept as intelligence with numbers and quotients, Gardner brought to light the fact that an innate or imparted knowledge of music, performance, theory, composition and the ability to recognize pitches is indeed an intelligence all its own and should subsequently be recognized and valued as such.

Gardner said that the ability to recognize "pitch (or melody) and rhythm: sounds emitted at certain auditory frequencies and grouped according to a prescribed system" are most central to the musical intelligence. But keep in mind that certain specific elements of music are emphasized more in particular cultures. For example, some Asian cultures make use of quarter note intervals while certain Sub-Saharan African cultures are much more rhythmic in terms of composition. Consequently, music intelligence has a culturally defined element (as do all of the intelligences) that needs to be taken into consideration when examining, developing, defining or attempting to measure for that matter.

Consider, if you will, viewing a busker or street musician on a busy street corner playing a one note composition and chanting over the top of the clamor of the street noise. Would you consider this man to be the most brilliant musician you've seen, especially when compared to other virtuosos you've heard in your lifetime? The answer is likely a resounding “no,” however, put that same man in front of a thousand chanting Zulus and his intelligence, skill and prowess as a musician will likely be recognized. On the other hand, players who have made their careers with flourishes and multi-note ripping arpeggios may not be seen as virtuosos in certain parts of the world and may be viewed as verbose, showy and missing the intangible nature of silence. Even Mozart described other composer's compositions of his era as busy and containing too many notes.

Gardner believed that musical intelligence surfaces before any of the other intelligences and that positive experiences early in childhood are crucial to developing one's full musical potential. And because he believed so emphatically in the notion that early musical education was integral to developing a child's full musical intelligence, he developed a study by the name of “Project Spectrum.” This study looked at the manner in which we as adults, parents and schoolteachers alike, can nurture the burgeoning child's intelligence. Gardner believed that schools stress linguistic and logical intelligences, ignoring or downplaying the others and even marginalizing children in the process. According to Gardner "we consign many students who fail to to exhibit the proper 'blend' to the belief that they are stupid, and we do not take advantage of ways in which multiple intelligences can be exploited to further the goals of school and the broader culture." (The Unschooled Mind, Gardner, 1991, p. 81). Project Spectrum looked to evaluate current modes of teaching and change the prevailing tools of education and assessment to provide for those who simply didn't fit into current parameters of intelligence. Classrooms were then changed to accommodate those displaying traits from the various intelligences or combinations therein, and children were allowed to explore those areas that suited their needs at the time.


Music can be appreciated on so many levels, from simply enjoying a catchy tune while wiling away the dreary, agonizingly and slowly passing moments in traffic, to composing the next hugely famous Broadway play. It has enhanced most of our lives on levels we can't fully comprehend and this is true especially in terms of education and intelligence. When combined with other modes of instruction and information, music has the power to enhance the learning process and improve other areas of ourselves that we never imagined could be touched by music. And if there is still contention amongst the politicians and scholars of the world concerning the power of music to elevate, educate and inform our voracious youth, my only advice is to pick up a guitar and play a little.