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Written by Dr. John Iversen. Read on ARTSBlog here.

Music is a central part of life for many of us, whether we listen, dance or play. It makes us feel good, or transports our imagination, but what is going on in our brain? Can music be used to help an ailing brain, or boost a learning one? An emerging field of Music Cognition is studying these important questions using new tools such as brain imaging that allow us to examine how the brain is changed by music. In this post we would like to tell you about one study we are doing that is trying to answer some of these questions.

In a collaboration between the University of California, San Diego, and the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, we have started the SIMPHONY project to ask the important question: “How does music change a child’s brain?”

We already know that if you measure an adult musician’s brain that there are measurable differences: Violinists, for example, have a larger part of the motor cortex controlling their left hand than non violinists. But there is the age old question of nature vs. nurture—is a violinist good because their brain started off with a specialized part, or did learning violin change their brain? As with all either/or questions, the answer is surely some of both!

Stepping back, a deep question in our education systems is how to help each child reach their full potential. The SIMPHONY project hopes to be part of the answer by examining how experiences, such as learning to play a musical instrument, have an effect on many other skills, like attention or speech perception. Going further, we would like to understand how these crossover effects, some of which have already been demonstrated by other researchers, reflect actual changes in the brain.

Why now? This is an exciting time in brain science. Much as any doctor has a height and weight chart for growing children, we are starting to discover that different parts of the brain also have their own growth curves. While we know good nutrition can help a child increase their height. Is music something that can do the same for brain growth?

What we’ll do: We will measure the brains and skills of children once a year for five years. Some children will be learning music in SDYS’ intensive Community Opus Project, an El Sistema inspired program. Others will not. We will look to see if the music training changes the development of different skills and different parts of the brain compared to those not learning music. We can measure how the size of the brain changes, and how the important connections between different parts of the brain develop.

We have already found some interesting connections between the development of the motor system and children’s varied abilities to move in time with music, something that has been found to relate to many other skills such as language and attention. This raises the possibility that we will find that parts of the brain will develop faster in children who study music, leading to improvements in language and attention skills.

It is still too early to say we have definitive answers on our question of how music helps a child’s brain development, but we hope that we have given you some insight into the questions and methods we are using to get rigorous answers to important questions about music and the child’s brain. Stay tuned—as we continue to study children over several more years, we will be able to tell you more.

You can help by telling our leaders that understanding the impact of music, and arts in general, on children is a critical question to study. Scientific research dollars have often not been directed to music and arts research. We received a University of California President’s Research Catalyst Award to form a new research network on music and the brain in California (http://merci.ucsd.edu), but could use everyone’s help to establish this as a critical question on our nation’s research agenda.

Please keep in touch!

University of California, San Diego SIMPHONY project: www.chd.ucsd.edu/research/simphony-study.html

San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory: www.sdys.org

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. John Iversen is an Associate Project Scientist with The Center for Human Development at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Iversen studies the effects of music on the brain and is currently directing the SIMPHONY Project.

Written in patnership with Dalouge Smith, President and CEO of the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory. 

About the Community Opus Project

San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory’s Community Opus Project is a community based music program for at-risk youth in San Diego County. It was designed as a free after-school instrumental music program to demonstrate the positive affects that learning and performing music has on students, engage parents and teachers, build community support for music education, and advocate for its return to schools. The program began with 65 third-graders at two schools in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, which had cut its music program many years earlier. SDYS’ strategy worked! After less than three years of the program, the District was convinced of music’s tremendous value and committed to returning its in-school music education program for all of its students. Today, more than 3,000 students are learning music as part of their regular curriculum. The District’s goal is to return music to all students by 2025.

In 2014, eight schools in Chula Vista have music teachers and more will be added each year. With music returning to schools, Community Opus Project continues to offer after-school programs for both Chula Vista elementary school students attending schools that do not yet offer music and those learning music in school who want to advance their learning and performance opportunities through District Bands and Orchestras.  There is also an after-school Opus Honor Band for middle and high school musicians.

San Diego Youth Symphony