JULY 15, 1999

Recent Findings in Music and Brain Research:
The Importance of Music in Education


My name is Norman M. Weinberger. I am a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California Irvine. My research has focused on how the brain learns and remembers information, particularly how it stores what we hear. In 1998, I became Executive Director of the International Foundation for Music Research. The goal of the Foundation is to fund basic and applied research on music, learning and behavior.

I appreciate the opportunity today to call to your attention to some of the recent findings in the growing field of music research that make music of particular importance to childhood education at this time. I will not review the traditional benefits of music that have been emphasized within the field of music education. These include the development of systematic mental thinking, ability to convert ideas into actions, facilitation of motor development, promotion of cultural heritage, positive expression of emotions, creativity, development of the aesthetic sense, the teaching of social and group skills and fostering positive attitudes toward school. While these remain valid, I will focus my remarks today on the surprising musical capabilities of human infants and children, newly discovered benefits of music on cognitive development, and the findings of brain research that link musical capabilities and benefits for learning and education.

Humans Are Inherently Musical

The fact that all cultures have music has long suggested that humans are musical. However, recent findings have shown that this is not simply a matter of cultural learning but rather that humans are born with a perception and understanding of music. We are now learning, in fact, that language develops from this innate musical knowledge.

Musical abilities can be objectively determined in infants by careful observation of behavior by a trained experimenter. Such studies have shown that infants exhibit musical competencies that are in many ways adult like. For example, they can discriminate differences between two adjacent notes on a piano, which is the smallest interval used in Western music.

What about melody? Adults perceive melody not by remembering the exact notes but by the pattern of lower and higher notes. Infants 8-11 months of age can do this as well. Rhythm and tempo are basic building blocks of music. Adults organize sound sequences by grouping them into discrete phrases. Infants, like adults, also mentally segment sequences of sound into "chunks". Adults also recognize the same melody independent of how rapidly or slowly it is played. Seven to nine month old infants also recognize melodies independent of tempo, showing the same listening strategy as adults. Adults perceive the difference between notes that have "normal" harmonic relationships from those that don't; Infants also can tell the difference between the two types of sounds.

Natural Music Behavior of Infants and Children

If people are born with musical abilities, are these naturally expressed or "performed"? Yes, even without lessons in playing an instrument or singing, young children show their knowledge of and interest in music spontaneously. For example, infants and pre-school children imitate musical phrases and songs. Beyond that, they compose and (usually simultaneously) perform original musical phrases. Recognizable spontaneous singing can be observed as early as six months of age.

Some Benefits of Music Education on Cognitive Development

Music education, particularly learning to play an instrument, has been found to have many benefits on cognitive development. These benefits appear to be based on the long-understood principle of "transfer of learning". That is, if one learning situation involves factors that are also used in a later, but different, learning situation, the knowledge or skills gained will facilitate the later learning.

For example, learning to ride a bike facilitates learning to roller skate or ski, because they all involve learning to keep one's balance. Cognitive skills also show transfer.

Reading is a good example of learning that is facilitated by prior music study. To understand how music education benefits learning to read, we need to recall that children usually learn to read in stages: [1] visually recognizing words, [2] learning the correspondences between visual parts of words ("graphemes") and their spoken sounds ("phonemes"), and then [3] achieving visual recognition of words without going through the earlier stages.

It is the critical second or "phonemic" stage that is of interest here. We are all familiar with children "sounding-out" syllables and words while they are learning to read (stage 2) which they discard when they reach stage 3. Music education involves learning to listen for pitch changes and this skill facilitates reading by improving the second, "sounding out" stage.

Creativity in young children is also facilitated by music education, as assessed by behavioral tests of creative thinking. Not surprisingly, good instruction in the basics of music includes exercises that encourage the creation of basic compositions by combining knowledge about the basic building blocks of music. Mathematics and science show beneficial effects of music as well. The positive effect on math, including spatial reasoning, can be understood as transfer effects based on the mathematical structure of music. This includes tempo, which is expressed as a ratio (e.g., 3/4 or "waltz" time) and harmony (e.g., specific intervals between notes of a chord.) The transfer effects to science appear to relate to similarities in basic concepts. These include rule-based structure and organization of music and of science.

Brain Substrates of the Benefits of Music

Two major advances in brain science have major implications for the importance of music in education: brain organization and the effects of experience on the brain.

All music is made up of fundamental "building blocks". These include melody, rhythm, harmony, and timbre. Brain studies have shown that these basic aspects of music are processed by different, specialized parts of the brain.

Previously, it was thought that only language had such specific brain substrates. Unlike language, which is processed mainly by one hemisphere, music involves both hemispheres of the brain. Thus, the human brain shows specialization and large scale involvement in music.

The effects of experience on the brain are of equal importance for understanding the important role of music in behavior and cognitive processes. Extensive study over the last quarter of the twentieth century has shown that both in the young developing brain and also in the mature, adult brain, experience alters brain function. More specifically, the connections between brain cells and the very operation of brain cells themselves is altered by what we sense, think and do. Thus, brains are shaped by experiences in a very clear physical manner, with resultant changes in brain function.

A major finding is that the strength of connections between brain cells (called "synapses") is altered; activity in synapses can strengthen them and lack of activity can weaken them. It is generally agreed that maintaining and increasing certain patterns of synaptic strengths is important for cognitive activity and for motor function. In fact, brain activity can actually produce new synapses.

During brain development in children, these processes occur on a very large scale, on a daily basis.

These findings raise the question of how music may reasonably be expected to affect synaptic interactions, particularly in children. Let's consider the major components of the human brain/mind:

Sensory and Perceptual (e.g., auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic)

Cognitive: (e.g., symbolic, linguistic, reading)

Planning Movements (e.g., organizing a sequence of muscle actions)

Motor: (e.g., fine muscle and gross muscle coordination)

Feedback/Evaluation (e.g., hearing if one played the correct notes)

Motivational (e.g., determination to study hard)

Learning (e.g., acquiring new information or a motor skill)

Memory (e.g., long term storage and use of new information and skills)

Which of these brain systems and processes are heavily used in music, whether in singing or in playing a musical instrument? The answer is that music engages all of these components. Thus, from reading a musical score to playing the notes and improving future performance based on feedback, music involves all systems, continually.

Thus, it would seem that music performance provides a complete mind/brain "workout". This workout should facilitate inter-communications between cells by strengthening synapses, thus improving brain function. This could explain increased creativity in general. It could also explain transfer effects

from music to other academic subjects, because if brain circuits concerned with mathematical computation, for instance, are strengthened by music education, then they would be more effective during other tasks or situations requiring such mental activities.


Research has shown that (1) children inherently have considerable musical competency, (2) children spontaneously engage in musical play and clearly attend to and enjoy music, (3) children exhibit cognitive and academic benefits from music education and (4) music performance is very likely to be a premier activity for facilitating brain function.

Unfortunately, music is often considered to be an educational "frill". I have often heard it said that it is too much fun to be important. I don't understand why enjoyment of learning should be an obstacle to learning. Moreover, contemporary research shows that music is important. The fact that music also provides an opportunity to capitalize on a biological predisposition to aid education further indicates its potential utility in having children develop their intellects to the fullest.

When one considers both the research findings summarized here and the traditional benefits of music listed in the Introduction, it seems quite clear that music deserves a place as an integral component of any school-based curriculum. Given the fact that the development of children's minds is perhaps the greatest resource of the United States, we ought to employ all appropriate and effective means to achieve this goal.