Tracking the Evolving Brain of the Young Musician

An ambitious five-year study of young orchestral players aims to determine how taking group music lessons impacts them intellectually and emotionally.
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An ambitious five-year study of young orchestral players aims to determine how taking group music lessons impacts them intellectually and emotionally.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Photo: Geographer/Wikimedia Commons)

Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Photo: Geographer/Wikimedia Commons)

A variety of studies published over the past few years have consistently shown that studying music has a range of positive impacts on children. The problem is that almost all of them come with an asterisk. It’s difficult to discern whether these benefits are the results of the lessons themselves, or if kids who study music are simply sharper, on average, than their peers.

Well, a longitudinal study currently underway in Los Angeles hopes, among other things, to answer this chicken-and-egg question. It’s a comprehensive, five-year-long look at the intellectual, physical, and emotional development of underprivileged youngsters enrolled in a rigorous music education program.

And its crucial initial finding is that the children being studied, who are participating in either the music program, a soccer program, or no extracurricular activities at all, essentially started off as equals.

“We found no differences between them in all the measures that we have, including measurements of the brain and behavior,” says Assal Habibi of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. “So from here, we know that anything we see can be associated with their relative training, be it music or sports.”

Learning a sport develops gross motor skills “like how to kick a ball,” while music training develops fine motor skills, “like the way you draw a line. They’re complementary. Both are necessary and important."

Habibi, along with institute directors Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio, announced some preliminary findings at a Wednesday evening event at USC. Now in its third year, their study features members of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, an educational initiative of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The researchers began by selecting 15 six-year-olds who were just starting the intensive music program, which provides after-school music lessons five days a week. They were paired with a group of their peers who were about to begin a similarly rigorous sports program, and a demographically identical control group. Ten additional kids were added to each group the following year, for a total of 75, all of whom will be followed for five full years.

YOLA, which was founded in 2007 and modeled after Venezuela’s El Sistema program, was chosen for several reasons. “There have been many studies of children who study music, but most of them have (featured kids from relatively privileged backgrounds),” noted Gretchen Nielsen, director of education initiatives for the L.A. Philharmonic.

In contrast, these students, who meet at Lafayette Park not far from downtown Los Angeles, are largely children of low-income Mexican or Korean immigrants. (The neighborhood, Nielsen said, is the "Ellis Island of Los Angeles.")

“Second, so much of our focus, in terms of how we teach and learn, is on group learning,” she noted. “The kids learn to understand their responsibility and place within this larger group. They’re given leadership and mentorship opportunities. They learn team-building skills which we know are transferable.”

Ah, but other after-school programs arguably do the same. To determine if music lessons are uniquely valuable, the researchers chose to compare the youth orchestra kids (who are officially members of YOLA at HOLA, or Heart of Los Angeles) to the young soccer players.

“We were looking at athletics programs that came closest to what it’s like being in an orchestra, and soccer seemed to be the closest we could find,” Nielsen says. “You’re really working in concert with one another (playing soccer). You watch one another a lot, and pass the ball frequently. It’s not like being on a swim team, where you’re racing individually.”

The other control group, in which the kids engaged in no structured after-school activities, was necessary for an obvious reason. “We wanted to take into account the fact that children’s cognitive skills—and emotional and social abilities—change and develop even if you don’t do anything,” Habibi says. “We had to control for that factor.”

Cammilleri Hall at the Brain and Creativity Institute. (Photo: University of Southern California)

Cammilleri Hall at the Brain and Creativity Institute. (Photo: University of Southern California)

Members of all three groups began by undergoing a series of tests measuring their intelligence (including vocabulary, reasoning, and memory), motor development, and emotional and social development. This latter category included empathy, willingness to help and share, and the ability to detect another person’s emotional state.

“If you cannot relate with others or engage in social interaction—if you have intelligence but not emotional intelligence—it does not really serve you,” Habibi says. (Indeed, recent research has found that emotional intelligence is a powerful predictor of workplace performance.)

In addition, the kids underwent brain scans, which are being repeated halfway through the program and again at the end.

“I know (studying music) made a lot of difference for me growing up. It really teaches you discipline—how to stick with a plan to achieve a goal.”

“We also are using two methods of neuroimaging,” Habibi says. We have fMRI scanning in which children do different tasks, cognitive or musical, while inside the scanner. We’re also looking at how the white-matter connection between regions of the brain changes as a result of an intervention. (Among other things) we’re looking at the corpus callosum, which is the pathway connecting the brain’s right and left hemispheres. There is some evidence showing it is more developed among musicians.”

While these tests are interesting in themselves, they have two side benefits. Nielsen notes that the kids are given copies of their scans, “which are a fun takeaway for them” and an incentive to stick with the program. Habibi adds that they could change the minds of policymakers who still think of the arts as a frill, noting “It’s hard to argue with brain images.”

So, beyond that initial set of images, what evidence have they compiled so far? Habibi reports that, after only a single year of training, both the young musicians and the young soccer players developed superior motor skills (compared to members of the control group). Learning a sport develops gross motor skills “like how to kick a ball,” she says, while music training develops fine motor skills, “like the way you draw a line. They’re complementary."

In addition, the music students improved their auditory skills above and beyond those of the other two groups. While that may be predicable, it’s also vital, according to Habibi, who points out: “We use the same auditory pathway for other activities, such as language perception and speech processing. Strong auditory skills allow us to pick up on subtle changes in intonation when you’re listening to another person, as when they’re conveying sarcasm.”

The researchers expect to uncover additional differences between the groups as the years go on. But Habibi promises to report back on “whatever effects, or lack of effects, we find.” Nielsen is more than fine with that, noting that the study will potentially help those in the arts education field “make important changes that we need to make.”

Presuming the results match anecdotal reports, they “will also help us make a case for the arts, and equal access to the arts,” she says. “If we have hard scientific research, we’re hoping that can open doors to funding sources we haven’t tapped before.”

Habibi, for her part, is convinced that the arts matter: She trained as a classical pianist before switching to science. “I know (studying music) made a lot of difference for me growing up,” she says. “It really teaches you discipline—how to stick with a plan to achieve a goal.” 

Which is a useful quality for most any professional, including a researcher in the middle of a five-year project.

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