In the school system where I was educated, formal training in music is required. This training became optional in high school, but nearly 75% of my 400+ graduating class pursued musical endeavors, including myself. Yes, I was a flautist who went to band camp. I do not expect other school systems to have had such strict requirements in music education for purely financial reasons. Beyond high school, I took a laboratory-based course on the psychology of music at Brown University, which allowed me to test human perception of and reaction to musical measures, and so, I was definitely intrigued by a study that was published in this week’s Journal of Neuroscience. To begin, a group of researchers at Northwestern examined if training in music during adolescence had a residual effect on how well the brain integrates and processes sound during adulthood and secondly, whether the length of training influenced the extent of successful neural processing. Because this was a brief communication and so the paper was limited to four pages for intro, methods, results, discussion, and figures, it was unclear to me what types of sounds that the subjects were presented. It is very obvious from the demographic data presented in Table 1 that these were juniors and seniors at an elite university (mean age of 21 and mean IQs in the mid-120s!) who began formal music training in middle school, and either stopped before or continued through high school (probably so they wouldn’t have to take high school gym [er, at least, my motivation for doing so….in part….]). Both of these groups were also compared to students who had also never received formal music training. The types of musical instruments played seems to be more diverse for the group who continued in high school, hereby referred to as the Marching Spartans (my high school mascot), compared with the group who stopped right before, hereby referred to as the Wheezy Recorders. At the level of measuring neural reactivity and processing, which was accomplished through electophysiological (EEG) recordings in the brainstem during the presentation of “sounds,” it was found that the signal-to-noise ratio, which is a standard electrophysiological measure of how precisely peaks in the EEG derived from different electrode placements are aligned, was much higher in the Marching Spartans compared with Wheezy Recorders and The Slackers (controls).
To summarize, the sound-processing neurons of individuals with formal music training in adolescence retain an ability to synchronize firing in response to sound even after years of ceased musical training, and while this neural processing is better in those with longer durations of musical training during adolescence, the point is that there was some benefit, after all, to spending many hours a week staring at cross-hatched lines and dots, having cramped fingers and sore lips, and withstanding the torment of being an “orch dork” or sadly, “band fag.” Suck it, Slackers.
Erika Skoe1 and Nina Kraus (2012). A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by
Musical Training in Childhood The Journal of Neuroscience, 32 (34), 11507-11510 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1949-12.2012