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The Many Ways Music Improves Cognition

🕑 2 minutes read
Posted February 11, 2014

a boy playing the violinIn the 1990s, a research movement called the cognitive neuroscience of music emerged. The field was introduced through observing the so-called Mozart Effect in a study in which students performed better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a Mozart piece for ten minutes. This lead to more questions: can any music improve cognition? How does music help people learn? While the cognitive neuroscience of music is still developing, an array of studies have demonstrated the connection between learning and music.

Several studies found that the Mozart Effect was not, actually, limited to music by Mozart. Students benefited from listening to music by other classical musicians (Schubert), modern music (British band Blur), and children’s songs. Even spoken word recordings like a Stephen King audiobook produced positive results. Eventually, the performance increase documented in the Mozart Effect was linked to the state of arousal induced by music.

The connection between music and IQ has also been researched. One study tracked students who took either music lessons, drama lessons, or no lessons for a year. The music students had the largest increase in IQ. Another study found that students who took six years of music class had a 7.5 point IQ boost. However, analyzing the connection between music and IQ is fraught because brighter students tend to be drawn to taking on extra lessons; music may be developing innate talents rather than building cognitive ability.

Some elementary schools have been experimenting with music lessons for young students. Meadows Primary School in Australia is part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Pizzicato Effect. The partnership between the orchestra and the school has resulted in improved literacy and stronger non-verbal reasoning skills for students. Furthermore, the school’s principal states that truancy rates have decreased thanks to the music program. Meanwhile, at East Bentleigh Primary, a school in the Steiner Stream—named for Austrian scientist and educator Rudolf Steiner—music educators have been observing benefits from their program. They have seen a stronger sense of community among students. Students there are also finding new ways of solving problems and connecting information.

Finally, according to Dr. Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain On Music, music has been shown to lower cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels more than anti-anxiety drugs in people preparing for surgery. Music can also support the body’s immune system—some studies have shown that playing music in a hospital’s neonatal care unit improved the health of premature babies with respiratory distress or sepsis.

Despite the myriad findings regarding music’s impressive effects on the human mind, researchers are still working to understand exactly how and why music effects people the way it does.

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