My Path to Neuroscience Research

I was 5 or 6 years old and had started to learn how to read at school. I remember feeling like I just didn’t get it. I could see other children race ahead, having “ah-ha” moments when they sounded out a new word, but it just did not make sense to me.

And this was not for lack of trying. My mother, who was a highly experienced teacher in the Remedial Reading and Reading Recovery programs, used every trick she knew and still reading and words were a mystery to me. My dear Grade 1 teacher, Mrs Armitage, said to me “I know you can do it, it is just a bit scrambled in your brain at the moment, like eggs”. As a 6 year old, I replaced the common visual of a squishy brain atop my head with a dome of steaming scrambled eggs.

But this lovely teacher did something extraordinary, she gave up half an hour every morning for me to come and “read” to her. Slowly I improved, but this was mainly because I taught myself lots of tricks about how to remember the stories from the pictures and misdirect her attention when I didn’t know a word.

Fast forward to when I was 8 years of age and, although my reading had improved, I was still struggling (and using my tricks to get by). I was selected for a beginner musical instrument program on woodwind instruments. The music teacher looked at my teeth and jaw structure and said “You look like you could play the flute”. So I lined up when they were handing out the instruments and when I got to the head of line they said “Oh, we have run out of flutes, here have a clarinet instead”. I didn’t care one bit, I just wanted to give it a go.

Fast forward again to six months later. I loved playing my clarinet and what’s more, I loved reading music. Here was a symbol system, a language, which made sense to me. No funny rules like “i after e except before c” and “That’s the rule and here are the exceptions”. Here was a language that made sense on every level, and I was zooming ahead for the first time in my life.

I had left Mrs Armitage’s class by then but she was still helping me with my reading. Around this time she said “You don’t need me anymore, you’ve got it”. It was interesting that while all that extra attention had helped my reading, I really got it quite quickly when I learned to play and read music. My hunch is that music education had helped my brain unscramble the English language.

Later, when I became a secondary teacher, I noticed that the students who chose to study music also seemed to be achieving near the top of all of their other subjects. What’s more, the number of subjects they were studying was often greater than the average and they were also excelling in activities such as the national hockey team or the physics Olympiad. And then there was leadership across the school; I would regularly have several house captains and the school captain sitting in front of me in my music class. There seemed to be a pattern.

So when I was searching around for a topic for my doctoral studies, my hunch led me to a study of the connections between brain function and music education.

What I have found is a mountain of neuroscience research that points to an incredibly wide array of benefits of music education, specifically in the area of learning a musical instrument. The reason why the musical instrument learning is important is less to do with the instrument or to listening to music, and more to do with the act of making music in a physical way. The research is showing that the act of making music in a physical way leads to heightened abilities in making, storing and retrieving memories, enhanced language acquisition and understanding, greater flexibility in thinking and connecting ideas, increased levels of executive function and the ability to moderate our emotional and logical reactions. It leads to bigger brains with denser grey matter and with synapses (the brain’s message system) working more effectively.

This research is explaining my early hunch that music education can have a positive, profound and perpetual effect on brain development for every child.

What Has the Research Found?

Firstly, a bit of an introduction to the field. In the last decade of the 20th century technological developments with brain imaging equipment took an important leap. Neuroscientists, with the help of fMRI machines and PET scans could observe brain activity in real time, and from this they began to rapidly develop the understanding we have of how the brain is constructed and how it functions. How did music training (as the neuroscientists refer to it) and musicians come into this picture I hear you ask? I will let Professor Robert Zatorre from the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music at McGill University, a neuroscientists at the forefront of this field of neuromusical research, explain the connection. … listening to and producing music involves a tantalizing mix of practically every human cognitive function. Even a seemingly simple activity, such as humming a familiar tune, necessitates complex auditory pattern-processing mechanisms, attention, memory storage and retrieval, motor programming, sensory-motor integration, and so forth.1

In short, music lights up the brain2 in a way that no other activity does. This discovery got the neuroscientists very excited and research has been undertaken at a fever pitch ever since. As a music educator I have found considering the findings in the field of neuroscience and music education quite fascinating, but there has been a niggling voice in my head that continues to ask the question, “but what do you mean by music education?”. So the question of “what has the research found?” must be considered in light of the issue that neuroscientists’ definition of a musician and their understanding of the significantly different approaches to music education that exist in our field is not defined in the same way as ours. Yet there are a number of consistent themes through the research that we can connect our experience of music education to the findings in the field of neuroscience.

Although a great deal of research has been undertaken it is by no mean definitive yet. When a new research field is established there is at least a decade or more before definitive findings are agreed on. Protocols need to be established, the scope of the field defined, and research methods tested to ensure validity and reliability of the findings. The next phase of a new research field is characterised by studies that replicate and refine the initial findings, and this is the phase we are entering into now. Why should these phases interest us as music educators? Well in some ways the manner in which the initial findings about brain development and music training were published did us no favours. If I use the term “Mozart Effect” you might groan or get a shiver down your spine as I do. The research this was based upon was part of the first phase of neuromusical research and by this very fact it was exploratory. Research studies in the second phase have been unable to replicate the findings of the Rauscher, Shaw and Ky (1993) study.3 However Don Campbell’s used this study in his book The Mozart Effect (2001) as the basis for a justification that listening to music makes you smarter.4 Understandably we started to see collections of classical music on sale, branded with the Mozart Effect, on shelves soon afterwards. I used to wonder if this early appropriation of the neuromusical research had done music education a disservice5 but now I view it more as the opening of a door through which we can now discuss, and maybe even challenge, the current “tune” we have playing on repeat with music education.

Changing Our Tune?

Ok, so please excuse me for the musical pun. But I do hear it as a tune and I will tell you why. I am a practicing music educator across a number of diverse settings, and this gives insight into the place and purpose of music education. I start almost every day with an ensemble rehearsal with high school students who, when asked, would tell me they like learning music because they like doing something with their friends and they enjoy some of the pieces. When I talk to their parents after a concert they often explain the value of music education as being in the discipline of working at something; they like their child having an outlet that is not “academic”. When I am sitting with my fellow music educators on a long bus ride on tour the conversation ultimately turns to the value of music education that we see for our students and talk about the belief, informed by experience, that music education is “so much more than just music education”. When I teach my music specialist teachers at university they speak of the value of an outlet for self-expression for children. Interestingly enough when I teach my generalist primary teachers in their music rotation, they also immediately point to the ability for music education to “get children to express themselves, be creative and have fun”.

Herein lies my concern. When I ask the students, parent, specialist teacher or generalist what informed this belief they rarely have an answer. They are singing a folk tune by anonymous. This then leads me to wonder if we could do a better job at orchestrating the monophonic tune we seem to be hearing and to a point reinforcing.

We need to up skill ourselves in the new field of neuromusical research. Although the neuroscientists are using music and music training to understand more about their field of brain structures and functions, they are researching the very basis of what we engaging in everyday in our teaching practice. And now in the second phase of the research, we can be cautiously confident that the findings have a validity that will support, rather than undermine, the value of music education.

So let’s start filling out the orchestration and see how the tune evolves with a few important findings in the field of neuromusical research. These findings are all based on comparisons between musicians (typically defined as learning a musical instrument) and non-musicians. I have made the titles short and direct with the hope that they will be easy to recall when you are talking to that parent after the concert. However for this orchestration to work we need to be able to flesh out the sound, and this means being able to articulate the nature of the connections between music training and brain development. Therefore I have added in the research studies and researchers to watch. This is not an exhaustive list but a beginning.

Music training helps our brains function faster and more effectively. Music training has been found to develop the speed of synapses (brain message system). Faster messages increase the ability to understand and connect ideas and are an important aspect in effective learning. Through the very nature of music training, the brain processes information either simultaneously or using intricate, interrelated and astonishingly fast sequences. This high level neurological multitasking is used when completing other non-musical tasks and therefore is a transferable effect of music training.Take a look at the research by:

  • Hyde et al (2009) (Hyde, K., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A. C., & Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (10), 3019-3025),
  • Haslinger et al., (2005) (Haslinger, B., Erhard, P., Altenmuller, E., Schroeder, U., Boecker, H., & Ceballos-Baumann, A. O. (2005). Transmodal Sensorimotor Networks during Action Observation in Professional Pianists. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17 (2), 282–293),
  • Molnar-Szakacs & Overy (2006) (Molnar-Szakacs, I., & Overy, K. (2006). Music and mirror neurons: from motion to ’e’motion. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 1 (3), 235-241),
  • Overy & Molnar-Szakacs (2009) (Overy, K., & Molnar-Szakacs, I. (2009). Being Together in Time: Musical Experience and the Mirror Neuron System. Music Perception, 26 (5), 489-504), and
  • White et al (2013) (White, E. J., Hutka, S. A., Williams, L. J., & Moreno, S. (2013). Learning, neural plasticity and sensitive periods: implications for language acquisition, music training and transfer across the lifespan. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 7, 90.

Music training helps our brains learn language. It was once thought that there was a language centre of the brain and a music centre of the brain. But this idea is being turned on its head and is best summed up in a quote by Koelsch (2011) “the human brain, particularly at an early age, does not treat language and music as strictly separate domains, but rather treats language as a special case of music” (p. 16).6 Music training has been found to assist with language acquisition and then with understanding the construction of language (syntax). Important researchers in this field are Patel (2003, 2008, 2009, 2012), Schon, Magne, & Besson (2004) and Wong, Skoe, Russo, Dees, & Kraus (2007).

  • Patel, A. D. (2003). Language, music, syntax and the brain. Nature, 6(7), 674–681.
  • Patel, A. D. (2008). Music, Language, and the Brain. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Patel, A. D. (2009). ‘Music and the brain: Three links to language’. In S. Hallam, I. Cross & M. Thaut (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (pp. 208–216). Oxford, UK: Oxford University
  • Patel, A. D. (2012). ‘Language, music, and the brain: A resource-sharing framework’. In P. Rebuschat, M. Rohrmeier, J. Hawkins & I. Cross (Eds.), Language and music as cognitive systems (pp. 204–223). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Schon, D., Magne, C., & Besson, M. (2004). The music of speech: Music training facilitates pitch processing in both music and language. Psychophysiology, 41, 341–349
  • Wong, P. C., Skoe, E., Russo, M. N., Dees, T., & Kraus, N. (2007). Musical experience shapes human brain-stem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 420–422. doi:10.1038/nn1872.

Music training helps our brains remember. Music training has been found to assist in making, storing and retrieving a memory. This is the trifecta really. Music training develops an effective, dynamic and flexible filing system in our brains by first filing a memory so that different ways of thinking can always tap into the same memory. I think of it as mulit-tagging a memory. Then music training files it in such a way that we can find it again easily, but also without our knowing our brains do spring cleaning at different periods in our lives (called pruning). Now we all know that spring-cleaning can be both methodical and thoughtful or haphazard and rushed. Music training helps the brain to select memories to jettison in a more discriminatory manner. Lastly, through the multi tagging and expert filing, music training helps the brain develop an effective system for retrieving memories. Couple this with the speed and agility of a musical trained brain, and we have the basis for a lively and nimble learner, again a transferable skill to all other areas of education. Keep following the exciting research by Dunbar (2008), Jonides (2008), Hamann, (2001) and Otani et al., 2011).

  • Dunbar, K. N. (2008). ‘Arts education, the brain, and language.’ In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.), Learning, Arts, and the Brain: The Dana Consortium Report on Arts and Cognition (pp. 81–104). New York, NY: Dana Consortium.
  • Jonides, J. (2008). ‘Musical skill and cognition’. In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.), Learning, Arts, and the Brain: The Dana Consortium Report on Arts and Cognition (pp. 11–17). New York, NY: Dana Consortium
  • Hamann, S. (2001). Cognitive and neural mechanisms of emotional memory. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 5(9), 295–400.
  • Otani, H., Libkuman, T. M., Goernert, P. N., Kato, K., Migita, M., Freehafer, S. E., & Landow, M. P. (2011). Emotion, directed forgetting, and source memory. British Journal of Psychology, 103(3), 343–358. doi:10.1111/j.2044–8295.2011.02078.x.

Music training helps our brains to stay healthy. Some of the most exciting research published this year is on the affect of music training on brain plasticity into adulthood. Brain plasticity encompasses many aspects of brain development and has a significant role to play in brain health through life. I think of it as the ability for the brain to stay flexible and function well. Music training has been found to maintain and improve plasticity and most recently a series of studies have found that music training before the age of seven improves brain plasticity levels in later life. Keep in touch with this research by following White-Schwoch et al (2013), Strait et al (2013) and Merrett, Peretz & Wilson, (2013).

  • White-Schwoch, T., Carr, K. W., Anderson, S., Strait, D. L., & Kraus, N. (2013). Older adults benefit from music training early in life: Biological evidence for long-term training-driven plasticity. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(45), 17667-17674
  • Strait, D. L., Parbery-Clark, A., O’Connell, S., & Kraus, N. (2013). Biological impact of preschool music classes on processing speech in noise. Developmental cognitive neuroscience, 6, 51-60
  • Merrett, D. L., Peretz, I., & Wilson, S. J. (2013). Moderating variables of music training-induced neuroplasticity: a review and discussion. Frontiers in Psychology, 4.

I have a student who always arrives late to rehearsal or forgets his music, and I say to him: “I have a dream, that one day you will be sitting in front of me when I come to the podium with your instrument, your music and a pencil. One day it will happen”. Well I have a dream for the all of this complex and seemingly unrelated research in music training. I have a dream that one day a pre-service generalist teacher will come up into my class and when I ask them why do they think music education is important in every child’s life, they will say “because it is an activity where they can be given the opportunity to express themselves, be creative and have fun AND improve their memory skills, apply the brain processes they learn through music training to other areas of their learning and take those skills into any and all of their future endeavours”. That is a tune I would be excited to listen to.


Article: Dr Anita Collins. Email: Entered on Knowledge Base 18 January 2014 with the author’s permission.


  1. Zatorre, R. (2005). Music, the food of neuroscience? (p 312). Nature, 434, 312-315.↩︎
  2. Collins, A. (2013a). Neuroscience meets music education: Exploring the implications of neural processing models on music education practice. (p 218). International Journal of Music Education, 31(2), 217-231.↩︎
  3. Rauscher, F., Shaw, G., & Ky, K. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.↩︎
  4. Campbell, D. (2001). The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. New York: HarperCollins.↩︎
  5. Collins, A. (2013b). Music Education and the Brain: What Does It Take to Make a Change?. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 8755123313502346. p 2↩︎
  6. Koelsch, S. (2011). Toward a neural basis of music perception – a review and update model. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 1-20.↩︎

Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Canberra. Specialising in how neuroscience offers a better understanding of the human brain's structures and functions, focusing on music education.

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