Psychology in the News

March 27, 2008

The sweet sound of brain development

Filed under: brain wiring — Tags: , , — intro2psych @ 12:02 pm

By Elizabeth Packer

When my sister was in elementary school, she had a close friend who studied the violin under the Suzuki Method. Developed by the Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki, it centers on the concept of beginning musical training when the child is no older than five years old and thus encouraging these young musicians to develop such personality aspects as self-esteem. But does the Suzuki Method do more than character build?

Kids at Gandhi AshramIn a recent article published on BBC, “Music Training Boosts the Brain,” an answer to this question is unearthed. Citing the work of a study undertaken by Dr. Takako Fujioka at McMaster University in Canada, the article asserts that training in classical music from a very young age does indeed do more than build character. It really does alter the brains of young children.

Within the study, Fujioka and his colleagues worked with a group of four to six year olds, half of whom had received musical training for a year. They were exposed to a violin tone and “noise-burst stimulus” in four repeated intervals, and then had their neural responses recorded through the use of an imaging technique which measures the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brain known as magnetoencephalography (MEG). Through the MEG scans, it was discovered that the musically trained children showed higher peaks in brain activity in the left hemisphere in response to the violin than the untrained group. The musically trained group also demonstrated an increased ability to discriminate between the two different sounds they were presented with: they responded more quickly to the sound of the violin when it was played than their nonmusical peers.

Based on their study, Fujioka and his colleagues reached a conclusion that musical training has an impact on the wiring of the brain in areas related to memory and attention. This matches up nicely with earlier studies showing that music students demonstrate better memory skills, even for non-music material, than their non-musical peers. They have thus demonstrated that there is more to the Suzuki Method—and instrumental training at a young age in general—than character building and getting children used to performing: it increases memory abilities by positively influencing brain wiring.

Fujioka, T., Ross, B., Kakigi, R., Pantev, C., and Trainor, L. J. (2006). One Year of Musical Training Affects Development of Auditory Cortical-Evoked Fields in Young Children. Brain, 129, 2593-2608.

Oxford University Press (2006, September 20). First Evidence That Musical Training Affects Brain Development In Young Children. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 21, 2008, from­ /releases/2006/09/060920093024.htm


  1. Just as learning the violin from a young age can positively influence brain development in the areas of attention and memory, so too can apathetic brain use from an early age, such as watching a lot of TV, lead to the opposite adverse effects. In a study published in the August 2007 issue of Pediatrics, Erik Landhuis of the University of Otago reports that children, between the ages of 5 and 11 who watch more than two hours of television per day have “above average symptoms of attention problems in adolescence.” If a child watches TV up to three hours a day, the symptoms are even more likely. The researchers tracked children born in New Zealand between April 1972 and March of 1973. Those who watched more TV experienced “40% increase in attention problems” than those who watched less television. Although the study relied upon the parents, not objective researchers, to keep track of the amount of time the children watched TV, and since there is no evidence of causation but simply of correlation, the findings may not be reliable. However, Landhuis theorizes that causes for this correlation may be the rapid scene changes in television make children find the monotonous act of doing homework boring. Furthermore, TV may take time away from other activities that cultivate concentration, such as reading, sports, etc. Therefore, a good way to steer clear of these attention problems is to engage children in more active behaviors, such as learning the violin, rather than sitting them in front of the tube.

    Comment by Zachary Wasser — March 30, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

  2. The study Zach refers to in his comment has also been discussed in a post by Kylie Cannon:

    Comment by intro2psych — April 1, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

  3. As a former Suzuki student learning piano, I can remember how multi-faceted the Suzuki system is. From the tapes that my mom played for me endlessly so that I would learn the songs by ear, to the “brain gym” exercises my teacher coached us through before recitals, the Suzuki lessons were much more than the printed sheet music. Personally, I feel as though it jumpstarted my ability to play piano and I was able to play difficult pieces more quickly than my friends who took lessons from a traditional piano teacher. I was curious to see if this phenomenon held true for all Suzuki students.

    Laurie Scott (1992) studied 3-5 year olds involved in individual Suzuki violin lessons, individual and group Suzuki violin lessons, creative movement classes, preschool classes, or no activities. She had them all perform a task to measure attention span. Children enrolled in both the Suzuki individual and group lessons performed the best, answering an average of 52.7 questions correctly. Compared to children in preschool, who answered an average of 38.8 questions correctly, this is a significant difference. The lowest scoring group was those children who weren’t enrolled in any activity, who only answered an average of 20 questions correctly. Of course, the large difference in these results could be due to attention of parents. The parents who are willing to spend money and time providing their children with activities may also be more likely to spend more time with their children. However, because of the holistic approach of the Suzuki method, I think that it can certainly help children with attention and memory skills.


    Scott, L. (1992). Attention and perseverance behaviors of preschool children enrolled in suzuki violin lessons and other activities. Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 40, Retrieved April 21, 2008, from

    Comment by Sarah Flickinger — April 21, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

  4. As a child, I started learning how to play the piano at the age of 10, the flute at the age of 11, and the cello at the age of 14. I’m not saying that I stuck with any of these instruments or that I’m good at any of them (I’m actually quite horrible at all three), but it makes sense that I can enjoy, or listen to music, on a different level than my friends who’ve never played music. But what about language? I grew up speaking Korean until I started preschool, and after that, my Korean just flew out the window. Should my parents be the one to blame for letting my Korean go bad, or does it have anything to do with the hidden parts of the brain?

    According to a New York Times article, “crucial” brain development occurs early on around the age of three. This is around the time when the brain is creating different neural connections and synapses, and getting rid of unnecessary connections as well. Parents, however, usually misconstrue the facts and are led to think that their child’s brain development ceases after the age of three. These are also (usually) the same parents who spend a ridiculous amount of money on videos and music to make their kids smarter. The first mistake these parents tend to make is that they spend money, not time, on their kids. Their second mistake is that they do not realize that the brain is extremely plastic and can adapt to many changes in the environment throughout a lifetime. Learning a languages, especially a second language, is one of these prime examples.

    A research on the sensitive periods of the brain suggested that despite gradual decline in the brain with age, the brain continues to make new neural connections throughout a lifetime. The common belief is that once someone passes the age of six to about puberty, attaining a second language is quite difficult. Though this statement is not false, it is not entirely true either. The research indicates that the window of opportunity to learn a second language never really closes. They found a negative correlation with age and mastery of language (as age increases, there is a linear decrease in the mastery of the language) and that adults use different parts of the cortex to learn a second language than a child. Stimulation in different part of the cortex indicates that children use different parts of the brain than adults to learn languages because children’s brains are developing and creating new neural networks, while adults are using existing neural connections to learn a second language.

    So all in all, I guess it is my own fault that I did not fully learn Korean. But the interesting thing is that my parents actually helped me in my development by spending time with me by telling me stories, taking me to work, and teaching me how to read an write both English and Korean. Even though I’m not fluent in Korean, because of the neural networks I created as a child, I think it would be easier for me to become more fluent in Korean than someone who has never spoken the language before. But that is always up for discussion.

    Tavris, Carol (October, 1999). “Mozart Isn’t the Answer”. New York Times. Retrieved on May 4, 2008.

    Thomas, Michael and Johnson, Mark (2008). “New Advances in Understanding Sensitive Periods in Brain Development”. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Retrieved on May 4, 2008.

    Comment by Peter Muhn — May 5, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  5. As a formerly Suzuki trained violin student, I grew increasingly frustrated that Suzuki method of instruction did not adequately teach its students to read music. My teachers often justified this by claiming that children should learn to read before learning to read music. Harold Pellier and Diana Nicholson have conducted experiments demonstrating that learning to read music helped poor readers learn to read better. This correlation can be explained either by the fact that music helps children better learn to pay attention or affords them better self-esteem. So, while the Suzuki method helps brain development and builds character, I’m not ready praise it quite as much as the author of this post.


    Zinar, Ruth. (1976). Reading Language and Reading Music: Is There a Connection? Music Educators Journal, 62. Retrieved from

    Comment by 105 student — February 24, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

  6. Almost every music teacher I had as a child would try to “sell” their kids on the idea of continuing their studies in music. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard “music makes you smarter” or “music improves your math skills”.

    But it seems like there might just be something to their claims. Learning and making music engages spatial-temporal reasoning and has been observed to improve this reasoning. Besides the neurological aspect of improvement that learning music provides, there is the problem-solving factor. In one of the additional articles I read, a student who was interviewed said, “the challenge of learning math [is similar to] one that requires the same methodical patience it takes to learn Prokofiev’s 3rd Sonata in A minor”. As far as evidence to back the claim that music improves math skills, some studies have shown a connection between learning music and performance in math. Though the studies are not conclusive enough to make a firm statement yet, there seems like there’s something to it.


    Comment by Daniele Selby — March 3, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

  7. we’ve read countless articles and excerpts from medical studies that all suggested that music contributes to early childhood brain activity.thanks for posting!

    Comment by bradenton violin lessons — March 11, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  8. I enjoyed reading this article. It was a nice, concise example of how learning music at an early age can lead to improved aspects of cognition in later development. I find it very interesting that this relates to part of class discussion that involve language acquisition in children. As discussed in class, babies lack the neuronal connectivity that develops upon the development of a native language. Similarly, the children have not yet pruned off many of the connections that it will in its lifetime. Thus, babies are able to recognize differences between a larger variety of phonemes between languages than the average adult. It seems that the acquisition of music functions in a similar way, as this post states that musically trained children could more easily distinguish between tones. It appears that my inference is correct, upon checking the source on the Suzuki Method ( It turns out that the method’s creator, Shinichi Suzuki, was inspired by native language acquisition in children when formulating his method. Might there be a common mechanism between language and music acquisition that specifically enhances one’s capacity for memory and attention?

    Comment by Anonymous — March 8, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

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