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Scientists Work to Discover How Music Training Affects the Brain

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – New research shows that the special training of music conductors seems to enhance the way their senses work together – enabling them to quickly tell who played a wrong note, for example. Scientists hope the research will lead to new discoveries about how music training may change the brain.

“Studies have shown that while students who get music training may sometimes do better academically, no research has explored whether this training actually causes changes in the brain,” said Jonathan Burdette, M.D., associate professor of radiology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

The research, conducted by Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNC-G) Music Research Institute, was presented today at the 35th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C. The study focused on multisensory processing, which is the brain’s ability to combine information from several senses, such as seeing an ambulance and hearing its siren.

“Multisensory processing has been shown to speed our reactions, help us identify objects and heighten our awareness,” said Burdette. “We hope to learn which brain areas are involved in this ability and how they can be enhanced by training.”

The researchers’ goal was to scientifically examine whether music conductors’ intensive training gives them special skills at locating sounds. For example, conductors must be very adept at not only identifying errors, but also in precisely identifying the errant sound both in time and space. This was one of the first studies to examine multisensory processing in this unique population.

“Our research suggests that conductors are better able to combine and use auditory and visual cues than the musically untrained,” said Donald A. Hodges, Ph.D, Covington Distinguished Professor of Music Education at UNC-G. “The conductors were also significantly better at locating sounds in space and using sound to locate objects.”

The study involved 20 conductors and 20 musically untrained subjects. Conductors were between the ages of 28-40 and had an average of more than 10 years’ experience as a band or orchestra director in middle or high school.

All participants were seated in a dark room and were asked to locate a briefly flashed light, a short beep, or a target that combined both light and sound at the same time and location. Targets were presented in random order from a variety of locations, and participants used a laser pointer to locate the target. The speed and precision of their responses were measured.

While subjects in both groups performed equally well in locating visual targets, conductors were significantly better at locating auditory targets than the musically untrained. They also performed much better when the light and sound were combined than they did on tasks using visual targets alone. This improvement was not seen in the musically untrained subjects and is typically not observed in the general population.

These results suggest fundamental differences in the ability of music conductors to use cues from multiple senses to locate objects in space. The next step in the research will be to have some of the subjects undergo brain scans with functional magnetic resonance imaging, which shows which areas of the brain are active during a task. The goal is to identify areas of the brain that may be involved in these differences in spatial abilities – and that may be capable of improved processing with training.

David Hairston from the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center was a co-researcher. Hodges and Burdette presented preliminary results of this work at the Neurosciences of Music II conference in Leipzig, Germany, in May 2005.

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Media Contacts: Karen Richardson, krchrdsn@wfubmc.edu; Shannon Koontz, shkoontz@wfubmc.edu; at 336-716-4587.

Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,187 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.

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