This is Your Brain on Music…Or is it?

Alex Yoder
Jul 8, 2016 · 6 min read

Research on the effect of music on the brain is not exempt from the widespread problem of terrible science reporting and overstated results, and we should stop trying to justify music education on shaky, non-musical ground

By now it’s no secret that the mass media is bad at reporting science to the general public. Whether it’s spewing false nutrition research or breathlessly parroting press releases, it seems that there are new offenses every week. News organizations (including those at universities) have a vested interest in “hyping up” scientific results because dramatic stories get more attention, which means higher ratings for a TV program, greater prestige for a college, etc. This continuous stream of misinformation is strengthened by the fact that people often don’t have the time, interest, or knowledge to critically evaluate what they see and hear from news sources.

The same problem occurs with research on the effect of music on the brain. If you’re a music teacher, researcher, or were ever involved in your school’s band, choir, or orchestra, you were likely taught from the very beginning that music has a profound, measurable impact on brain development, academic performance, career success, and all kinds of other important things. In these social circles, links and articles are shared around, everyone nods their head in agreement, nothing is questioned, and everyone moves on. This is the proverbial “echo chamber” and it’s the same thing that fuels communities that are actually dangerous, like the anti-vaccination movement. Even if you’re not a musician, you’ll likely see the occasional music-related story on social media or the local news. You might even be convinced, for example, to join a local choir rather than a yoga group because “singing may be just as healthy as yoga, scientists say”.

Samuel Mehr, a graduate psychology student at Harvard, notes that this issue is not particularly new (Mehr 2015):

The idea that “music makes you smarter” is widely accepted by the general public and traces back to a sensationalist media interpretation of a Nature paper describing improved spatial task performance after listening to a Mozart sonata. This “Mozart effect” has been called a “scientific legend” and was conclusively debunked, but not before it elicited a media frenzy that affected political policy.

So here’s the problem: music is great, but music science reporting is not. If a headline seems too good to be true, it probably is. As a case in point, this article recently popped up on Twitter:

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At first glance, this is the type of thing that would get an instant nod of approval from most music educators as yet another piece of unquestionable proof that music improves childrens’ brains. Let’s look a little deeper. The first red flag is that the link goes to a university press release site, which are normally dedicated to puffing up the research done at that institution to make it seem more impressive. There is a link to the website of the research group as well as a link to the journal which published the paper, but not to the actual paper itself, forcing readers to find it via other means. I’m not a neuroscientist, but the ‘Discussion’ section of the paper is quite readable with a few references to earlier sections. Here’s what the press release misses:

Inherent limitations

Three groups of students were studied: one group was part of a youth orchestra, one joined a soccer program, and the last was a control group with no specific activities. The problem here, as noted by the researchers themselves, is that this was not a randomized, controlled trial. The children enrolled in these programs by their own (or their parents’) motivation. This means that characteristics of each group that were present before the study began might account for the results, rather than the music/sports training the students received. So there is not a clear cause/effect relationship between music/sport activities and brain development — it is only a correlation. An overwhelming majority of studies looking at the effect of music education on children have this exact problem. The reason is simple: it would be unethical to tell a group of children that they “must” or “must not” engage in music related activities for an extended period of time.

Bad titles

The headline is misleading because it could easily be interpreted in a very general sense (i.e. the entire brain develops faster) when in reality there was only a small increase in signs of maturation, and only in one area of the brain: the auditory cortex. Of course, we would expect that if any area of the brain would become more developed from music, it would be the part responsible for processing sound, but a headline saying “When children use areas of their brains, those areas develop” isn’t quite as compelling is it? Furthermore, the implicit notion that music is doing something beyond what the other activities can offer is just not supported by the study. For example, we don’t know if the soccer group saw an increase in maturation of the motor cortex from playing sports because the study doesn’t appear to be interested in that measurement, but if it did have that effect then soccer could also be said to cause “childrens’ brains to develop faster”.

Music training is better than soccer training for music related tasks

From the press release:

Children who were in the youth orchestra program were more accurate at detecting pitch changes in the melodies than the other two groups

So we know that music training doesn’t make you worse at music related tasks. That’s not particularly surprising and doesn’t have any bearing on the truth of the headline.

Now What?

This is not to suggest that all research related to music and the brain is doomed to weak results and poor reporting. Many areas of research such as Music Cognition and Music Therapy are becoming increasingly fruitful and practically useful. And, of course, music education can still be part of a child’s healthy development, whether or not the science is eventually firmed up.

It is also important to note that some studies do show enough meaningful correlation to warrant further investigation. For example, Sylvain Moreno and colleagues found an increase in verbal intelligence (read: better scores on a vocabulary test) after 20 days of intensive musical training in a popular 2011 study. The sample size here is relatively small, but the effect is quite striking. Nevertheless, we must consider the weight of all the evidence when speaking generally about the effects of music, and there are other short term studies which draw opposite conclusions, therefore skepticism is still warranted.

All of this sidesteps the very real problem of needing “fuel” to combat budget cuts and flailing arts programs across the country, a topic for another time. But we can be sure of at least one thing: throwing misleading articles and unconvincing studies at administrators and public officials is not going to help us. After all, a majority of Americans already believe that music education is important.

The point of this article is to provoke more a more reasonable, skeptical approach to articles and news reports on the benefits of music. Being a musician myself (and working with several educators throughout the years) I have seen firsthand the real value of this art form. We need music educators to be freed from the constant prodding to “justify” their discipline. This means we should stop focusing on the extrinsic benefits of music and start appreciating it for what it is: art! This idea is commonly summed up with the phrase “music for music’s sake”, and it’s worth repeating. When Language Arts teachers tell you about the value of reading classical literature, they don’t send you articles showing that reading helps with brain development or makes you more likely to be a CEO (and if they do, they should stop). The value of literature (and music, dance, poetry, etc.) is intrinsic. It’s part of the mystery of human emotion, creativity, and subjective personal experience. Even though science has the potential to tell us more about music and how it affects us, we shouldn’t need a study to convince us it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

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