Friday, November 13, 2015

Why music is good for you By Philip Ball

A survey of the cognitive benefits of music makes a valid case for its educational importance. But that's not the best reason to teach all children music, says Philip Ball. Remember the Mozart effect? Thanks to a suggestion in 1993 that listening to Mozart makes you cleverer, there has been a flood of compilation CDs filled with classical tunes that will allegedly boost your baby's brain power. Yet there's no evidence for this claim, and indeed the original "Mozart effect" paper did not make it. It reported a slight, short-term performance enhancement in some spatial tasks when preceded by listening to Mozart as opposed to sitting in silence. Some follow-up studies replicated the effect, others did not. None found it specific to Mozart; one study showed that pop music could have the same effect on schoolchildren. It seems this curious but marginal effect stems from the cognitive benefits of any enjoyable auditory stimulus, which need not even be musical. The original claim doubtless had such inordinate impact because it plays to a long-standing suspicion that music makes you smarter. And as neuroscientists Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., point out in a review published July 20 in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, there is good evidence that music training reshapes the brain in ways that convey broader cognitive benefits. It can, they say, lead to "changes throughout the auditory system that prime musicians for listening challenges beyond music processing." This is no surprise. Many sorts of mental training and learning alter the brain, just as physical training alters the body, and learning-related structural differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians are well established. Moreover, both neurological and psychological tests show that music processing draws on cognitive resources that are not music-specific, such as pitch processing, memory and pattern recognition--so cultivating these mental functions through music would naturally be expected to have a wider pay-off. The interactions are two-way: the pitch sensitivity imbued by tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese, for example, enhances the ability to name a musical note just from hearing it (called absolute pitch). We can hardly be surprised, meanwhile, that music lessons improve children's IQ, given that they will nourish general faculties such as memory, coordination and attentiveness. Kraus and Chandrasekaran now point out that, thanks to the brain's plasticity (the ability to "rewire" itself), musical training sharpens our sensitivity to pitch, timing and timbre, and as a result our capacity to discern emotional intonation in speech, to learn our native and foreign languages, and to identify statistical regularities in abstract sound stimuli. Philip Ball's latest book is The Music Instinct (Bodley Head). Scientific American Photo