Can playing music affect your brain?

Karen Willoughby
23 January 2012

At a time when many schools are cutting music programs due to budget constraints, researchers are trying to understand how music affects our minds and bodies by asking, "What are the benefits of music?"

Fast Fact: Anthropologists have yet to find a society that does not exhibit some form of music, suggesting that music is a fundamental and universal part of human existence.

Researchers have been particularly interested in examining whether musical training can have a positive impact on cognition (i.e., how we think and reason) by altering the way our brains process information. Learning to play a musical instrument is a complicated task, requiring a wide range of abilities, such as attention, memory, auditory processing and fine-motor coordination, which are controlled by many different areas in the brain. As children develop the complex skills necessary for playing music, researchers believe these skills "carry over" into other areas of cognition, improving one’s intelligence and memory. In fact, several studies conducted at the University of Toronto have shown that children who were given music lessons for one year had higher IQ scores than children who were given drama lessons. Other studies have also shown that musicians have higher scores in working memory, attention and mathematics than non-musicians.

Did You Know?
According to researcher Catriona Morrison, we generally arrive at many of our life-long music preferences (e.g., heavy metal, R&B) during adolescence.

Recent advancements in neuroimaging (i.e., using imaging techniques to study the brain’s structure and function) have allowed researchers to examine the effects of musical training on brain development. These studies indicate that certain areas of the brain that are involved in music (e.g., the auditory cortex, hippocampus, primary motor cortex) are larger and more efficient in both children and adults who are given extensive musical training, relative to control groups not given musical training. Thus, researchers argue that musical training changes the organization of the brain (known as neuroplasticity), particularly in early childhood when the brain is the most susceptible to change. Given these findings, it is clear that music should be considered a core part of any school’s curriculum. So, keep up with those lessons and know that it is never too late to start learning a musical instrument!

Learn More!

The Royal Conservatory of Music (

The Suzuki Association of Ontario (


Herdener, M., et al. (2010). Musical training induces functional plasticity in human

hippocampus.The Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 1377-1384.

Hyde, K.L., et al. (2009). Musical training shapes structural brain development. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 3019-3025.

Schellenberg, E.G. (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15, 511-514.

Fujioka, T., Ross, B., Kakigi, R., Pantev, C., & Trainor, L.J. (2006). One year of musical training affects development of auditory cortical-evoked fields in young children. Brain, 129, 2593-2608.

Article first published on September 27, 2010.

Photo Credit: iStock

Karen Willoughby

Karen Willoughby is a 4th year PhD student at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto studying prenatal development. More specifically, she studies long-term memory performance and brain development in children who experienced early thyroid deficiency or exposure to alcohol in the womb, using both behavioural (e.g., interviews) and neuroimaging (e.g., fMRI) techniques. Karen has taken part in several international volunteer projects around the world, such as volunteering in a Romanian orphanage, building coffee fields in Jamaica, teaching English in Tanzania, and repairing and documenting the damage in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  In her spare time, Karen enjoys painting, photography and backcountry camping in Algonquin Park with her husband.

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