Music for the brain

A look at research on music and intelligence

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No matter where we go, music is an integral part of daily life. Despite it surrounding us completely, there is still no agreement amongst scholars about the reasons we are so drawn to listening to music, or what functions it has within our lives. The actual origins of music are still unknown, and little evidence exists to indicate how it all may have started. It is thought that we may be able to work backwards and determine the function music originally had within our ancestry by looking at how music functions within our lives today.

It has been determined that music affects us via three main components. Listening to music affects our mood, teaches us how to relate to ourselves, and contributes to in-group identity. Music facilitates group action and reduces social stress.

Researchers have also speculated potential evolutionary origins of music. One theory suggests that music originated form the humming or singing of a mother that needed to place her child down to free her hands, yet still maintain a bond with her infant.

Other scholars focus on how music is affecting us in our current day-to-day lives, rather than looking at the evolutionary history of how music could have evolved. One example involves relating music to cognition.

A study conducted by researchers from Sam Houston State University in Texas looked at early music training and its effect on children. The research paper, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, indicates a correlation between early music instruction and spatial-temporal reasoning abilities.

Spatial-temporal reasoning involves manipulating objects in the mind without looking at a physical model. In doing so, we can perform higher brain functions like playing chess or solving mathematical problems. Being involved in music-playing an instrument, for example-requires the same type of brain function.

It is thought that learning how to play a musical instrument can strengthen skills that require spatial-temporal reasoning. This becomes particularly beneficial to young children, as the part of their brains responsible for learning this type of thinking is still developing.

The link between music and cognitive thought has been assumed for over a century. Now that it has been validated, the next step is to determine whether any specific type of music, the amount of that music, and at what age children are exposed to the music, will result in the most beneficial cognitive gains.