A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has assessed the extent to which playing a musical instrument is associated with brain development among healthy youths. This study has been called "the largest investigation of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development" and the team found that musical training might also help kids focus their attention, control their emotions, and diminish their anxiety, according to ScienceDaily.
James Hudziak, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, and colleagues including Matthew Albaugh, Ph.D., and graduate student research assistant Eileen Crehan, wanted to find out if a positive activity like music training could influence those parts of the cortex that thicken or thin reflecting the occurrence of anxiety, depression, attention problems, aggression, and behavior control issues in kids with no diagnosis of a disorder or mental illness. Hudziak's model, The Vermont Family Based Approach, which proposes that a child's environment – parents, teachers, friends, pets, activities – contributes to the child's psychological health. Music is a critical component of Hudziak's model.
Music playing alters the motor areas of the brain through activity that requires control and coordination of movement, and, serendipitously, changes the behavior-regulating areas of the brain.
For example, music practice influenced thickness in the part of the cortex that relates to "executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future," the authors write.
The musical background of a child also appears to correlate with cortical thickness in "brain areas that play a critical role in inhibitory control, as well as aspects of emotion processing."
"We treat things that result from negative things, but we never try to use positive things as treatment," says Hudziak.
Three quarters of US high school students "rarely or never" take extracurricular lessons in music or arts.
"Such statistics, when taken in the context of our present neuroimaging results," the authors write, "underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood."
In other words, music can actually help kids become more well-rounded, says Tom Barnes of Mic.com's music section. It even begs the question, can music serve as a treatment for cognitive disorders like ADHD? Other studies have already shown that learning music can help with spatiotemporal faculties, which, in turn aid in the ability to solve complex math. Not only that, but it could also help improve reading comprehension and verbal abilities. It's been shown, as well, that civic engagement and higher grade-point averages occur in children who receive musical training in school.
If as a parent, you have sat through your child's fifth grade band recital and thought that maybe you shouldn't encourage your child to continue music training, you have been proven wrong, reports Amy Ellis Nutt of The Washington Post. Hudziak's research, using a database of the National Institutes of Health Magnetic Resonance (MRI) Study of Normal Brain Development, studied 232 healthy children ages six to 18 looking at brain development in kids who play a musical instrument.
"I wanted to look at positive things, what we believe benefits child development," Hudziak said. "What I was surprised by was the emotional regulatory regions. Everyone in our culture knows if I lift 5-pound, 10-pound, 15-pound weights, my biceps will get bigger. The same is true for the brain. We shouldn't be surprised we can train the brain."
Hudziak was so inspired by his work, the 56-year-old decided to start viola lessons last year. He also engages in exercise and meditation. If he was so passionate about promoting good health in children, he thought it seemed silly not to try it himself. Dr. Hudziak believes that the viola lessons are contributing to his overall wellness. When asked how his viola skills were coming along, Hudziak said his skills were, "Horrible."