Music has a powerful effect on our emotions. Parents know that a quiet, gentle lullaby can soothe a fussy baby. And a majestic chorus can make us swell with excitement. But music also can affect the way we think.
In recent years, we’ve learned a lot about how the brain develops. Babies are born with billions of brain cells. During the first years of life, those brain cells form connections with other brain cells. Over time, the connections we use regularly become stronger. Children who grow up listening to music develop strong music-related connections.
Some of these music pathways actually affect the way we think. Listening to classical music can improve our spatial reasoning, at least for a short time. And learning to play an instrument may have an even longer effect on certain thinking skills.
Not exactly. Music seems to prime our brains for certain kinds of thinking. After listening to classical music, adults can do certain spatial tasks more quickly, such as putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
Why does this happen? The classical music pathways in our brain are similar to the pathways we use for spatial reasoning. When we listen to classical music, the spatial pathways are “turned on” and ready to be used.
This priming makes it easier to work a puzzle quickly. But the effect lasts only a short time. Our improved spatial skills fade about an hour after we stop listening to the music.
Learning to play an instrument can have longer-lasting effects on spatial reasoning, however. In several studies, children who took piano lessons for six months improved their ability to work puzzles and solve other spatial tasks by as much as 30 percent.
Why does playing an instrument make such a difference? Researchers believe that musical training creates new pathways in the brain.
The music most people call “classical”–works by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart–is different from music such as rock and country. Classical music has a more complex musical structure. Babies as young as 3 months can pick out that structure and even recognize classical music selections they have heard before.
Researchers think the complexity of classical music is what primes the brain to solve spatial problems more quickly. So listening to classical music may have different effects on the brain than listening to other types of music.
This doesn’t mean that other types of music aren’t good. Listening to any kind of music helps build music-related pathways in the brain. And music can have positive effects on our moods that may make learning easier.
Parents and child-care providers can help nurture children’s love of music beginning in infancy. Here are some ideas:
Fagen, J., Prigot, J., Carroll, M., Pioli, L., Stein, A., & Franco, A. (1997). Auditory context and memory retrieval in young infants. Child Development, 68, 1057-1066.
Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., Levine, L. J., Wright, E. L., Dennis, W. R., & Newcomb, R. L. (1997). Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning. Neurological Research, 19, 2-8.
Viadero, D. (1998). Music on the Mind. Education Week, April 8, 1998.
Wallace, W. T. (1994). Memory for music: Effect of melody on recall of text. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 20, 1471-1485.
Reprinted with permission from the University of Georgia. Bales, D. (1998). Building Baby’s Brain: The Role of Music. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, College of Family and Consumer Sciences.