Overheard: This Is Your Brain on Music Dana Strait, an expert on the biological foundations of auditory perception, talked recently with online conference attendees about how learning to play a musical instrument shapes cognitive development. The Leader was a fly on the wall … Overheard
Overheard  |   March 01, 2014
Overheard: This Is Your Brain on Music
Author Notes
  • Dana Strait, PhD, is a research associate at the Neural Systems Lab at the University of Maryland in College Park. ■dstrait@isr.umd.edu
    Dana Strait, PhD, is a research associate at the Neural Systems Lab at the University of Maryland in College Park. ■dstrait@isr.umd.edu×
Article Information
Development / Hearing & Speech Perception / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Overheard
Overheard   |   March 01, 2014
Overheard: This Is Your Brain on Music
The ASHA Leader, March 2014, Vol. 19, online only. doi:10.1044/leader.OV.19032014.np
The ASHA Leader, March 2014, Vol. 19, online only. doi:10.1044/leader.OV.19032014.np
SARA BACHINSKI: I was wondering if taking up musical training as an older adult with no prior history of musical training has been shown to improve auditory processing, assuming normal to near-normal peripheral hearing.
DANA STRAIT: This is a very new area of study. A new paper in PLoS ONE showed that older adults with no prior musical training had improved auditory cognitive abilities following a short-term training program [bit.ly/musicians-cognitive]. There is very little that is known about other auditory processing abilities and their neural underpinnings in older adults who initiate musical training, but we should have much more information over the next few years. All signs as of now, however, point toward music being a worthwhile activity for older adults.
CANDY SCHOPPA: What would you suggest to encourage parents as well as public schools to encourage more music training? It seems that music is one of the first things to go when schools have budget problems, but obviously there is a big advantage to having music training. Just wondering if you have any ideas.
STRAIT: My opinion is that longitudinal music training studies conducted in public schools will be most effective for encouraging educational policy makers to make music a priority. We actually have two such studies underway—one in Los Angeles and the other in Chicago (bit.ly/neuroeducation-projects).
JENNIFER DEMPSEY: In your presentation, you mentioned that guitar might be an easier instrument to learn than the piano for children with central auditory processing disorder. What other instrument would you recommend?
STRAIT: My recommendation for children who struggle to process organized sound in some form or another would be for them to begin with a single-lined instrument, and perhaps one that reduces motor complexity. The guitar would be one option, but they also might consider a brass or wind instrument as well as the drums. There are some who argue that instruments that drive rhythm would be most effective—i.e., drums—but that is still up for debate.
MARK WITKIND: I especially appreciate your work, as I have frequently encouraged clients to learn and to practice fluency enhancing strategies while we listen to “relaxing music” of their choice. Some clients have clearly reported that this encourages their musical interests and also encourages them to feel less anxious over time while communicating. Wanted to share this experience.
STRAIT: You are correct that music is known to influence mood, and I am glad to hear that this has helped your patients!?Barbara Germany: Based on your research and experience, do you find programs such as Integrated Listening Systems and other listening therapies that use music useful? What criteria might you suggest in terms of identifying those children who would benefit the most?
STRAIT: There is currently very little scientific support for the efficacy of listening therapies. While there may be those that are effective, the empirical data available point toward music-making—that is, musical activities that require the manipulation and production of musical sound—as music’s most effective application.
PEGGY PEARL: Please explain your view of what “music training” includes.?Strait: My employment of the term “music training” refers to training on an instrument—including voice. That is, training that requires the patient/student to “make music.”
LAUREN BARANOWSKI: Are any future studies looking into type of instrument and/or whether or not singing provides the same effect?
STRAIT: This is always a popular question, and for good reason! We know that training on different instruments changes the brain in different ways, but we do not yet have a good grasp as to how. For example, not surprisingly, pianists respond differently to the piano sound than do other instrumentalists. We have yet to determine whether training on different instruments differentially transfers to extant abilities such as attention, memory, reading and so on.
JACQUELINE CALLANAN: Have your studies identified any qualitative differences in the benefit of music training to enhance auditory processing in males versus females?
STRAIT: I don’t believe I’ve had this question before, but it’s a good one! Unfortunately it’s not one that I have an answer to. All I can say is that there may be different developmental considerations made for males versus females, given that their brains undergo different developmental trajectories. Males, for example, may be slower—or faster?—to reveal memory/attention enhancements given their later prefrontal maturation.
ERIN BAGLEY: I have always felt that there are lifelong benefits to musical training, but it’s great to see more objective data. Have you noticed if there is a “critical window” where learning to play an instrument seems to have maximal benefit—such as when learning a second language?
STRAIT: Erin, this is an important question, and one that has a messy answer. It seems that there are not necessarily critical windows but absolutely there are optimal windows, referred to as “sensitive periods.” Although they are not evident for all aspects of auditory processing. In a paper I published in 2009 in the European Journal of Neuroscience [bit.ly/musicians-emotion], which includes the data presented in the talk on emotional vocal sounds, I found that all musicians had faster responses than non-musicians, but that only musicians who began by age 7 had enhanced pitch and timbre processing. Age 7 has since been reported as a sensitive period for white matter development. See papers from Virginia Penhune and Robert Zatorre’s collaboration [bit.ly/white-matter-plasticity]. Generally speaking, it seems that musical training initiated during early childhood may be most effective for engendering some neural enhancements, but that training initiated later still bears benefits and should be encouraged—even if not initiated until older adulthood!
PEARL: Why music? What is your theory as to why music causes these changes? Is it the tempo, prosody, pitch? The anticipation in the brain—waiting for the next note? Is it that it’s not spontaneous when a musical piece is practiced and known … therefore the auditory system is already on standby?
STRAIT: My theory is that all of the factors you mention, tied together by rhythm to provide overarching structure, combined with music’s engagement of the limbic system—i.e., emotion—induce structural and functional plasticity. One study I’d love to see conducted would look at musical training outcomes in children who don’t enjoy music. This would help test the emotional engagement aspect of my theory and help clinicians determine how worthwhile musical training might be for patients who struggle with auditory processing to the degree that playing music loses its typically inherent association with emotional reward. I must add to this ... music is always spontaneous—even when a piece is practiced and known. Musicians might argue that the better we know a piece, the more spontaneous we can be with it!
LISA HILBERT: I was wondering if you see the cABR [Auditory Brainstem Response to Complex Sounds] becoming a clinical tool. Would it be helpful with children who have difficulty providing behavioral information for central auditory processing disorder testing?
STRAIT: The cABR is already a clinical tool (bit.ly/clinical-technologies)! Dr. Nina Kraus invented a clinical tool called BioMARK, which has been available for a few years now. It involves recording cABRs to a short speech sound and assessing the timing and magnitude of the neural response. That this metric is objective is perhaps one of its greatest strengths, not dependent on behavioral responses or judgments.
DENISE JEFFRIES: As an SLP I was intrigued by [your presentation], but as a mother of young children, one of whom is having difficulty with phonological development and the beginning stages of reading and writing, I am excited by your research. Could you possibly expand on your thoughts on why it is important to “make music”—versus learning a difficult instrument—and other ways making music could be employed by clinicians and parents on a less formal level?
STRAIT: We know that you learn better when you enjoy the learning process, which is why I encourage children to select an instrument they are attracted to and that doesn’t overwhelm them with motor demands they may not be ready for. Whereas many children benefit greatly from piano practice, for example, keeping track of two lines might be difficult for a handful of children with disabilities. I am not one to tout the benefits of one instrument over another—we simply don’t have data available to make this possible with any degree of confidence—but I am confident that children will gain the most from their music-making experience when they enjoy the process. For children with certain disabilities, this may require a creative teacher!
On a less formal level, parents and clinicians might encourage participation in group music classes. Clinicians could also consider collaborating with a music educator to organize group music programs in their clinics. Children could learn simple and inexpensive instruments such as the recorder or drums. The social nature of a program like this could help children who struggle to really enjoy the process.
HOPE POLK: This may be an odd question ... but what do you think about using games such as “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band” for those students uninterested in actual instruments? Do you think games such as these could provide any benefits similar to that of actual musical training?
STRAIT: I honestly don’t know of any data that could help me answer, but I do know that there are apps out there and am of the opinion that employing them is a great idea! I hate the thought of replacing formal musical training with a computer game, but it could be a viable first step, and one that is accessible to parents who may not otherwise be able to provide musical activities for their children.
KATHI ROSS: Does lack of talent or ability to play an instrument impact the effect on auditory processing?
STRAIT: All I can say is that we see correlations between the duration of music practice—i.e., years of training and extent of neural/cognitive benefits accrued. We do not see relationships between musical skill and extent of benefits accrued. It is possible that innately talented children may yield more benefits, either because their systems are “primed” to benefit from music or because they enjoy it more—and therefore practice it more! But it may also be possible that children who really have to “work for it” have more room to benefit.
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March 2014
Volume 19, Issue 3