Scientific Study Shows Learning With Music Can Change Brain Structure

    Scientists link listening to music with increased brain and motor function

    Music and physical activity are inextricably linked. From professional athletes using in-game music to dancers to people working out at the gym and everything in between, music exists as a motivator, even an inspiration. (Does news blogging while listening to METZ count?)

    Now, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Edinburgh, scientists have revealed that listening to music while performing physical tasks can change one’s brain structure.

    The new study centers on “white matter pathways — the wiring that enables brain cells to communicate with each other.”

    Of course, this is potentially good news for anyone listening to tunes while playing pick-up basketball, but more importantly, “the study could have positive implications for future research into rehabilitation for patients who have lost some degree of movement control,” specifically sufferers of strokes or other myriad brain damages.

    For its study, the University used 30 right-handed volunteers and split them into two groups. Each group then had to learn a new task involving finger movements with the left hand. One of the groups listened to music while performing the task, one did not.

    And while at the end of four weeks both groups executed the task equally well, only the group who had the musical cues “showed a significant increase in structural connectivity in the white matter tract that links auditory and motor regions on the right side of the brain,” according to the study. “The non-music group showed no change.”

    Physical therapy can be a long and arduous process. Learning even the smallest physical movements after suffering brain damage can seem monumental. The research team’s leader at the University, Dr. Katie Overy, said, “The study suggests that music makes a key difference. We have long known that music encourages people to move. This study provides the first experimental evidence that adding musical cues to learning new motor task can lead to changes…in the brain.”

    Several studies have been conducted on how music positively effects the brain. For more reading on the topic above and more, Oliver Sacks published a paper for Oxford University’s “Brain: A Journal on Neuroscience,” in 2006. In it, he writes eloquently about the power of music for patients with Parkinson’s:

    “Music is profoundly important to those with motor disorders, though the music must be of the ‘right’ kind—suggestive, but not peremptory—or things may go wrong. For one of my deeply parkinsonian post-encephalitic patients, Frances D., music was as powerful as any drug. One minute I would see her compressed, clenched and blocked, or else jerking, ticking and jabbering—like a sort of human time bomb. The next minute, if we played music for her, all of these explosive–obstructive phenomena would disappear, replaced by a blissful ease and flow of movement, as Mrs D., suddenly freed of her automatisms, would smilingly ‘conduct’ the music, or rise and dance to it.”