Ever wondered why you were forced to play the recorder in third grade? No, it wasn't so that your parents could enjoy an ear-piercing, hour-long screechfest every few months in your elementary school auditorium. It's probably because learning an instrument was good for your brain's development during those critical years.
Now, this may not seem like new information, but researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine have recently conducted the "largest investigation of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development," according to a press release.
They found that, by playing an instrument, children aren't just learning Beethoven and Bach; they're also learning how to focus their attention, control their emotions, and reduce their anxiety.
Using the National Institutes of Health Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Study of Normal Brain Development's database, the team, headed by Dr. James Hudziak, analyzed the brain scans of 232 children ages 6 to 18.
When assessing the scans, the team focused on the cortex, the outer layer of the brain, which changes in thickness as children age.
In his previous research, Hudziak found that patterns of cortical thickening and thinning can indicate levels of anxiety, depression, attention problems, aggression, and behavior problems even in children without diagnoses.
With this new study, Hudziak's goal was to see if musical training could alter these patterns and, indeed, results say it can.
Playing music alters the motor areas of the brain due to the coordination it requires.
Perhaps the most most important finding was that playing music changes the behavior-regulating areas of the brain, thickening the part of the cortex that controls executive functioning. This area is responsible for working memory, attention control, and organizational skills.
Another area in which musical training thickens the cortex, they found, is that which plays a critical role in inhibitory control and the processing of certain emotions.
In other words, picking up an instrument could help a child battle psychological disorder even more effectively than medication.
"We treat things that result from negative things, but we never try to use positive things as treatment," said Hudziak.
Research from the U.S. Department of Education reveals that a startling three-quarters of U.S. high school students "rarely or never" take lessons in music or the arts. Clearly, making music training more widely available should be a bigger priority for schools. It can provide youths with a sense of rhythm that extends beyond the music world — into the classroom, the workplace, and even their personal lives.