A few days ago I wondered about how much validity there is to the belief that musical training will prepare you to do other things. It’s pretty common for many of my music teaching colleagues to tell concerned parents that their children will “learn how to learn” or that the skills they learn majoring in music will teach them what they need to know to succeed in just about anything. While I certainly don’t want to discourage the study of music, I think this recruiting tactic is misleading and can backfire.
Coincidentally, Dr. Steven Novella (a neurologist at Yale, blogger, and podcaster) happened to post on a recent review on music and its effects on overall cognitive function. Specifically, what is musical training’s effect on brain plasticity. He uses typing as an example. After decades of typing you don’t need to think anymore about where to push down on the keys, you simply type what you want to write.
Anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument is also familiar with brain plasticity. After years of playing, the complexity and subtlety with which you can perform on an instrument becomes impressive. You don’t have to think consciously about every move – you just feel it. Further, your ear is more sensitive to subtle aspects of pitch, tone, timing, and timbre. You notice things other people don’t notice.
None of that is in dispute. What is more controversial is the idea that musical training should improve abilities that go beyond auditory skills and motor control. Will musical training actually make you smarter?
The recent review published in Nature Neuroscience Reviews does show that there is some crossover between musical training and language function. Both music and language involve auditory processing and so this is plausible. On whether or not it’s going to make you smarter, Dr. Novella has this to say:
This review also does not alter my opinion regarding brain training in general – mental training improves the tasks that are trained, and the underlying neurological processing, but not cognitive areas that are not directly related to the tasks that are being trained.
Of course this in no way diminishes the importance of music education for individuals and our society. Music is a universal and prevalent part of the human condition and is valuable for its own sake. I would prefer if we could support music education for this reason, rather than relying on misleading or false information (where are the sources?).