Not only does music-making activate many different regions of the brain, but it can actually help to shape the brain itself. “We now know the brain is an organ that changes with experience,” Patel says, “and music has an impact on brain structure.” That impact appears to be strongest when music training begins in early childhood, when the brain is developing the most rapidly and multiple new connections are being formed. According to Patel, children’s brains show evidence of faster development when they are learning to play an instrument. And studies comparing the brains of adult musicians and non-musicians find the most pronounced enhancements in brain structure in those who began their music training early in childhood. Musicians’ brains have increased grey matter, which is involved in processing, as well as increased white matter, which is comprised of the connective fibers that link disparate parts of the brain. Several studies have also found that the musician’s brain tends to have a larger corpus callosum, which plays an important role in the communication between the left and right sides of the brain.
“The fact that music engages so much in the brain—including regions we think of as important for language, memory, motor control, executive function and emotion—raises the question of how it interacts with these other activities,” says Patel. It’s not surprising, Patel says, to find that violinists, who make intricate movements with the fingers on their left hand, have enhanced fine motor function and corresponding changes in the regions of the brain that govern left-handed finger control. What’s more surprising is that music training actually enhances the way the brain processes language.
By connecting research subjects via scalp electrodes to machines that record the way their brains respond to sound, Kraus and her colleagues at Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab measure how the brain encodes pitch, timing, and timbre, all three “key ingredients of music and speech,” according to Kraus. Musicians process both sound and speech more accurately and efficiently. “Not only are they better at encoding what I said, but they are better at interpreting how I mean it,” says Kraus “If my pitch goes up, I’m asking a question, if it goes down, I’m making an emphatic statement, and all kinds of emotion is carried by changes in pitch.”
Timing and timbre are important in distinguishing between different consonants in speech, like bill vs. pill, or cat vs. bat, something that a child must be able to do in order to read successfully. In fact, Kraus and other researchers have found that children who have better rhythm tend to be better readers as well. And one of the most important cognitive functions strengthened bymusic is auditory working memory, says Kraus—you have to be able to remember the words you just read to understand what comes next, just as a musician has to remember a note that has just been played to tune an instrument or to improvise.