The annual BBC Proms festival is on, from July to September, and since my return to Goa, I’ve been listening to all the concerts on internet radio. The “Listen Again” feature allows one to listen to a concert at one’s convenience, for upto 28 days after the concert. In Goa, the internet connection gods have to smile benevolently upon you as well.

The Proms Extra programmes, aired in the interval of the concerts, are often just as interesting as the music. For instance, there was a brilliant programme highlighting recent medical research into the modifications in the human brain following musical training.

The programme was chosen to accompany The Ten Pieces Proms, a concert chosen specially for secondary-school pupils in the UK. In it, BBC Radio 3 presenter Clemency Burton-Hill spoke to one of the world’s leading experts in neuro-education, cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sylvain Moreno from the Centre for Brain Fitness, University of Toronto about the impact musical study can have on the brain structure and function of children.

Neuroscientific research over the last few years suggests that children who study music and perform music in school ensembles perform better in core subjects (including English and maths) than their peers.

Moreno’s research reveals an exciting causal connection between music education and cognitive growth. “One of the main hypotheses right now is the music training tends to improve the inhibitory mechanism in your brain. These are mechanisms you use in everyday activities”, he said on the programme.

His team conducted a study in 2011 in which they selected a population (children aged four or five) that had had no prior musical training. They showed that after just four weeks of musical training, there were changes in the brain (brain ‘plasticity’, as he termed it), in I.Q. testing and in the performance of cognitive tasks, and attention. A follow-up study showed that these changes persisted even a year later, even though they received no further musical training after the four-week intervention. And although he admitted more research is needed, they observed that the “developmental trajectory” of the children had been favourably altered by the intervention of musical training. “Basically, their brain was developing faster, and for the better”, said Dr. Moreno. Just four weeks of music education had essentially ‘rewired’ their neural pathways in a very positive way, much to the surprise of the research team.

This is heartening news, as the widely-held belief until now has been that one needs to study music for several years for it to have beneficial effects upon the brain.

Moreno added that the research findings would trigger further research into how music training could help those with disabilities, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and older populations with stroke and dementia. The evidence so far suggests that even a little music training in early life can have benefits that last into old age. So music could actually be seen as a form of ‘preventive medicine’, if you like, to stave off some of the problems of senility and the ageing process.

Those involved in amateur music-making, singing in choruses and playing in ensembles might have already known this instinctively, but now there is a body of clinical evidence accumulating to scientifically back it up.

What about the idea of coming from a ‘musical background’? Are children of ‘musical’ parents at an advantage? Moreno answered in this way; “The more activity you are exposed to that can enrich your life experience, the more it has a positive effect on you. Music is one of these activities. I would encourage any parent to involve their children in music class, learning an instrument, or just learning to sing. I always say that the voice is the cheapest instrument you can find, because you already carry it with you.

Group lessons or one-on-one sessions? One-on-one sessions seem to have a stronger effect, but Moreno says there is a trade-off, because there is more fun to be had in group learning, and the fun element could have its own benefits. Taken out of the laboratory setting and into the real world, group learning would make more sense on many levels, including the financial consideration, with group lessons likely to be cheaper than one-on-one sessions, and providing benefit to more children within a teacher’s working hours.

“What is great about music is that you can learn, and improve your brain skills, with a very engaging and motivational type of activity. For kids it is fun. This is the main point why it is so important.”

Also, it was thought in the past that music targeted mainly the auditory areas of the brain, ie the temporal lobes, the brain areas around the ears. “But neuro-imaging has shown that music is stimulating almost every area of your brain… So it is very easy to conceive that music is going to have a very general benefit on every processing that we manage during our daily life.”

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The link between music and motor processing is complex. The corpus callosum, the part of the brain linking the two cerebral hemispheres, is involved in this process. “We know for instance that a pianist has more grey matter in this part of the brain, because they use both hands so much.” The brain is deeply impacted by the type of training. “If you play trumpet or you play violin, your auditory cortex will be modified differently.”

String players have a bigger representation of the fingers area in the brain. And this can continue to happen in adult life. This is a research area of interest to neuro-scientist Gottfried Schlaug at Harvard Medical School Boston. “This has been a revolution in brain plasticity and in neuro-science”, says Moreno. “Before these discoveries, we didn’t think that the adult brain could be modified. We had this pre-conceived notion that only children could modify their brain through learning, and once you became an adult, your brain was pretty much ‘stuck’ in what you had done before. But recent findings show that this is actually not true. You can modify your brain at any age. Your brain keeps its plasticity properties until very late in life. I remember testing a ninety-year old with our musical training software, and she showed incredible change after just a few weeks of training.”

He concluded the programme by saying “Music can be really beneficial for education. It should be part of every school curriculum. This is the expert consensus in our scientific community.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 August 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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