music

Childhood musical training helps auditory processing in old age

June, 2011

Another study confirms the cognitive benefits of extensive musical training that begins in childhood, at least for hearing.

A number of studies have demonstrated the cognitive benefits of music training for children. Now research is beginning to explore just how long those benefits last. This is the second study I’ve reported on this month, that points to childhood music training protecting older adults from aspects of cognitive decline. In this study, 37 adults aged 45 to 65, of whom 18 were classified as musicians, were tested on their auditory and visual working memory, and their ability to hear speech in noise.

The musicians performed significantly better than the non-musicians at distinguishing speech in noise, and on the auditory temporal acuity and working memory tasks. There was no difference between the groups on the visual working memory task.

Difficulty hearing speech in noise is among the most common complaints of older adults, but age-related hearing loss only partially accounts for the problem.

The musicians had all begun playing an instrument by age 8 and had consistently played an instrument throughout their lives. Those classified as non-musicians had no musical experience (12 of the 19) or less than three years at any point in their lives. The seven with some musical experience rated their proficiency on an instrument at less than 1.5 on a 10-point scale, compared to at least 8 for the musicians.

Physical activity levels were also assessed. There was no significant difference between the groups.

The finding that visual working memory was not affected supports the idea that musical training helps domain-specific skills (such as auditory and language processing) rather than general ones.

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Benefits of childhood music lessons may extend into old age

June, 2011

A new study finds length of musical training in childhood is associated with less cognitive decline in old age.

A study involving 70 older adults (60-83) has found that those with at least ten years of musical training performed the best on cognitive tests, followed by those with one to nine years of musical study, with those with no musical training trailing the field.

All the musicians were amateurs who began playing an instrument at about 10 years of age. Half of the high-level musicians still played an instrument at the time of the study, but they didn't perform better on the cognitive tests than the other advanced musicians who had stopped playing years earlier. Previous research suggests that both years of musical participation and age of acquisition are critical.

All the participants had similar levels of education and fitness. The cognitive tests related to visuospatial memory, naming objects and executive function.

Reference: 

Hanna-Pladdy, B. & MacKay, A. 2011. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology, 25 (3), 378-86. doi: 10.1037/a0021895

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Music aids Alzheimer's patients in remembering new information

August, 2010

A small study has found that music can help patients with Alzheimer's disease recognize verbal information.

The study involved 13 patients and 14 controls, who listened to either spoken lyrics or lyrics sung with full musical accompaniment while reading the printed lyrics on a screen. The 40 lyrics were four-line excerpts of children’s songs, all characterized by having simple, unrepeated lyrics, repetitive melodies, and a perfect end-rhyme scheme for the four lines. The participants were then given these 40 lyrics mixed in with 40 other similar lyrics, and asked whether they had heard it earlier. Alzheimer’s patients were markedly more likely to recognize those they had heard sung (40% compared to 28% of the spoken). Interestingly, the controls showed no difference, although of course their performance was considerably better (77% and 74%).

It may be that setting new information, such as simple instructions, to music might help Alzheimer’s patients remember it.

On a side note, a recent study found that classical music (four short pieces by different composers) affected the heart rates of people in a vegetative state in the same way as they did those of healthy listeners, suggesting that music affects emotion at very deep level. (see http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19123-classical-music-moves-the-he...)

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Background music can impair performance

August, 2010

Music may help you get in the mood for learning or intellectual work, but background music is likely to diminish your performance.

While studies have demonstrated that listening to music before doing a task can improve performance on that task, chiefly through its effect on mood, there has been little research into the effects of background music while doing the task. A new study had participants recall a list of 8 consonants in a specific order in the presence of five sound environments: quiet, liked music, disliked music, changing-state (a sequence of random digits such as "4, 7, 1, 6") and steady-state ("3, 3, 3"). The most accurate recall occurred when participants performed the task in the quieter, steady-state environments. The level of recall was similar for the changing-state and music backgrounds.

Mind you, this task (recall of random items in order) is probably particularly sensitive to the distracting effects of this sort of acoustical variation in the environment. Different tasks are likely to be differentially affected by background music, and I’d also suggest that the familiarity of the music, and possibly its predictability, also influence its impact. Personally, I am very aware of the effect of music on my concentration, and vary the music, or don’t play at all, depending on what I’m doing and my state of mind. I hope we’ll see more research into these variables.

Reference: 

[1683] Perham, N., & Vizard J.
(2010).  Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?.
Applied Cognitive Psychology. 9999(9999), n/a - n/a.

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Benefits of music training on the brain

August, 2010

A comprehensive review of the recent research into the benefits of music training on learning and the brain concludes music training in schools should be strongly supported.

A review of the many recent studies into the effects of music training on the nervous system strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication, including learning. It’s suggested that actively engaging with musical sounds not only helps the plasticity of the brain, but also helps provide a stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex situation. Moreover, it trains the brain to make associations between complex sounds and their meaning — something that is also important in language. Music training can provide skills that enable speech to be better heard against background noise — useful not only for those with some hearing impairment (it’s a common difficulty as we get older), but also for children with learning disorders. The review concludes that music training tones the brain for auditory fitness, analogous to the way physical exercise tones the body, and that the evidence justifies serious investment in music training in schools.

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[1678] Kraus, N., & Chandrasekaran B.
(2010).  Music training for the development of auditory skills.
Nat Rev Neurosci. 11(8), 599 - 605.

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Is practice sufficient for expertise?

July, 2010

A study of sight-reading ability in pianists confirms the importance of many hours of practice, but also suggests that working memory capacity makes a difference.

A new study challenges the popular theory that expertise is simply a product of tens of thousands of hours of deliberate practice. Not that anyone is claiming that this practice isn’t necessary — but it may not be sufficient. A study looking at pianists’ ability to sight-read music reveals working memory capacity helps sight-reading regardless of how much someone has practiced.

The study involved 57 volunteers who had played piano for an average of 18.6 years (range from one to 57 years). Their estimated hours of overall practice ranged from 260 to 31,096 (average: 5806), and hours of sight-reading practice ranged from zero to 9,048 (average: 1487 hours). Statistical analysis revealed that although hours of practice was the most important factor, nevertheless, working memory capacity did, independently, account for a small but significant amount of the variance between individuals.

It is interesting that not only did WMC have an effect independent of hours of practice, but hours of practice apparently had no effect on WMC — although the study was too small to tell whether a lot of practice at an early age might have affected WMC (previous research has indicated that music training can increase IQ in children).

The study is also too small to properly judge the effects of the 10,000 hours deliberate practice claimed necessary for expertise: the researchers did not advise the number of participants that were at that level, but the numbers suggest it was low.

It should also be noted that an earlier study involving 52 accomplished pianists found no effect of WMC on sight-reading ability (but did find a related effect: the ability to tap two fingers rapidly in alternation and to press a computer key quickly in response to visual and acoustic cues was unrelated to practice but correlated positively with good sight-readers).

Nevertheless, the findings are interesting, and do agree with what I imagine is the ‘commonsense’ view: yes, becoming an expert is all about the hours of effective practice you put in, but there are intellectual qualities that also matter. The question is: do they matter once you’ve put in the requisite hours of good practice?

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Definitive review of the Mozart effect

July, 2010

Finally a definitive review making clear the limits of the Mozart effect (namely that it's a very small effect when it occurs, and it only occurs in very specific circumstances).

Some years ago I wrote an article discussing the fact that the so-called Mozart effect has proved very hard to replicate since its ‘discovery’ in 1993, but now we have what is regarded as a definitive review, analyzing the entirety of the scientific record on the topic (including a number of unpublished academic theses), and the finding is very clear: there is little support for the view that listening to Mozart improves cognitive (specifically spatial) abilities. First of all, in those studies showing an effect, it was very small. The size of the effect of the specific Mozart sonata used in the original study (Sonata KV 448) compared to no stimulus was similar in size to the effect of any music compared to no stimulus. There was a small significant effect for the Mozart sonata when directly compared to other music, which probably reflects the fact that the types of music used in different studies varied widely. Some types of music are doubtless less arousing than others.
There was also a large difference in the results from laboratories affiliated to Rauscher (the original researcher) or Rideout compared to other laboratories. Rauscher and Shaw 1998 did in fact emphasize that the effect required exact replication of their original study design.
I have to say that if this (small and very specific) effect depends so heavily on getting the procedural details exactly right, it’s of little practical use. I think the main lesson we can learn from all this is that your emotional state affects cognition (a well-established effect), and that you may find some types of music are best for ‘getting you in the mood’ for mental work.

Reference: 

[1587] Pietschnig, J., Voracek M., & Formann A. K.
(Submitted).  Mozart effect-Shmozart effect: A meta-analysis.
Intelligence. 38(3), 314 - 323.

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Stroke patients regain the power of speech by singing

March, 2010

People deprived of speech following a stroke were taught to sing words instead of speaking them in a technique known as 'melodic intonation therapy'.

And in another pilot study, people deprived of speech following a stroke were taught to sing words instead of speaking them in a technique known as 'melodic intonation therapy'. Brain scans also showed functional and structural changes in the undamaged hemisphere after they had received the therapy. Doctors are now testing the therapy in 30 stroke patients to assess how many people who lose their speech after a stroke would benefit.

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The findings were reported at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Diego.

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