Music and the Brain: Listening to Music Could Help You Learn

Sep 23, 2010

Next time your dormie tells you to turn the music down, just reply 'it's helping me learn!' A study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that listening to music can help the brain focus and organize information.

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Listening to Music

Listening - And Learning

For decades, researchers have been studying the link between learning and listening to music. The concept was introduced into the popular imagination in the early 1990s, when Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis coined the phrase 'the Mozart effect.' The term referred to Dr. Tomatis' finding that listening to Mozart could temporarily improve performance on certain spatial-temporal reasoning tasks, such as the Stanford-Binet IQ test. People quickly mis-translated the finding to 'listening to Mozart makes you smarter,' and a new industry was born: To this day there are all sorts of 'intelligence-boosting' products available that claim to harness the power of Mozart.

The link between music and learning isn't all hype, however. A 2009 study by Joseph M. Piro and Camilo Ortiz published in the Psychology of Music journal found that children who were exposed to music training performed better on vocabulary and reading comprehension tests than those who were not. The researchers hypothesized that studying music helped the children develop the mental coding systems necessary to learn language. Although they acknowledge that this is only a preliminary study - simply having different language instructors may have led to measurable differences in ability - the project is part of a growing body of research that suggests that music and learning are correlated.

Learning With Music

Music Helps the Brain Focus

Enter the research team at the Stanford University School of Medicine. During a study designed to measure how the brain sorts out different events, they stumbled upon a concrete physiological link between the acts of listening to music and learning. The researchers played short symphonies by obscure 18th-century composers to subjects while scanning their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. The research group found that music 'lights up' areas of the brain involved with making predictions, paying attention and committing details to memory.

But don't switch on that stereo just yet - peak brain activity actually occurred between musical movements. Dr. Vinod Menon, the study's senior author, noted that 'In a concert setting, for example, different individuals listen to a piece of music with wandering attention, but at the transition point between movements, their attention is arrested.' In other words, you get the most brain activity just after, or between, intense musical movements.

'I'm not sure if the baroque composers would have thought of it in this way,' Menon added, 'but certainly from a modern neuroscience perspective, our study shows that this is a moment when individual brains respond in a tightly synchronized manner.'

So what does this mean for students? While Stanford hasn't published a 'learning with music' guide just yet, we think it probably can't hurt to incorporate some tunes into your studying routine. Just remember: Study during the interludes.

Looking for something new? Don't miss tomorrow's guide to free (and legal!) online sources for music.

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