John Iversen
Does Music Change a Child’s Brain?
TEDxSanDiego 2015

It’s part of all of our lives. How did that make you feel? Maybe take you back to childhood. Remind you of a memory you hadn’t thought of in a while? Maybe you wanted to get out of your chair and gallop around the stage.

Have you ever thought to think why? Why does music do all these things for us? In particular, what’s going on in our brain when we make or listen to music?

It turns out a lot is going on in our brains. This picture here is a brain scan of a musician, a pianist improvising. It’s from the work of Charles Limb. The red and blue show areas of activation and deactivation during this musical performance.

What I want you to see is just how much of the brain is touched by music. Because of this, scientists, like myself, really feel that we can use music as a great tool to help us understand the brain, but also to change it.

Many people have wondered, does music do good things for the brain? Is it good exercise for the brain, particularly for kids? There’s a lot of growing research showing that music can improve math skills, reading, even school attendance, confidence, as was talked about earlier today.

There’s still a question: what is music changing in the brain that enables those improvements to happen?

Today, I’d like to talk to you about a study, the SIMPHONY study, that’s trying to answer that question. Before that, in the 2020 vision of looking ahead to the future, I’d like to sketch out a vision of education, informed by what we know about the brain to help people meet their greatest potential.
Consider what that would be like. Imagine Genie, a five year old, going to the doctor for her annual checkup. Like all of us, she’ll have her height and weight measured.

The doctor will show her and her parents where she falls on growth charts of height and weight. We’ve all seen these. In fact, the World Health Organization publishes worldwide growth charts that are used as standards to help us plan nutrition both for individuals and society.

What about kids’ minds and brains? Where’s the growth chart for that? What if in 2020, the doctor could measure Genie’s brain? What if we had growth charts for the brain so that he could plot out the growth of different functions and different areas of her brain, maybe somethings are ahead of the curve, but circuit X or area Y, maybe that’s a little bit behind.

What would we do with that knowledge? What if we also knew that something like music could impact different brain areas because of its all-encompassing nature and might specifically help brain areas develop?

We could use that knowledge then to, perhaps, suggest that Genie take up violin in an orchestra or sing in a choir.

How are we going to get to that point? We’re still a long way, but it’s an exciting time in science right now, where we have brain imaging and we’re starting to sketch out the developmental path of the brain.

For example, this work here is from a group here in San Diego, led by Terry Jernigan. The PING Project measured the brains of 1,000 people across the country, from age 2 to 22, and sketches out these curves of area and thickness of the cortex, the outer wrinkled part of our brains.

These black lines show the average trajectory of growth of these things in people. Each dot on that graph is a person, an individual, and we really care about what’s happening to their brains, what happens to them next year or the year after.

Take the thickness chart. It decreases. It’s an apparent measure and it decreases. It’s a good thing in kids because that actually reflects greater growth of connections into the cortex.

What about someone up here who has relatively immature cortical thickness? What would happen to them next? Will they just follow the same path that they’re on and remain behind the curve for their age, or will they catch up, converge down to the mean?

What impact will that have on this child’s growing set of skills? Is there anything we can do to change this, to make one scenario turn into the other?

This leads us to the big questions. How does each of our individuality, the constellation of skills, talents, likes, dislikes, depend on our brain, the exact developmental path that our brain is taking versus someone else’s?

In particular, what can we do in our experience to shape the development of the brain? Little questions like that.

These questions will take many years, maybe even lifetimes, to answer, because they really are the question of the seed of individuality. However, we’re starting to make progress on them.

Another study at UCSD by the same group, PLING, the longitudinal cousin of PING, has started to look at brain growth over a period of five years in a group of 200 kids, starting age 5 to 10.

That’s where I come in. I had the great fortune to be able to piggyback a study on this PLING study, a study of music, where we asked the question, what does music experience do for growth of the brain?
This will enable us to answer questions like, does music really target specific areas or circuits of the brain, and if so, how does that link up to increased abilities in other domains?

That’s the SIMPHONY study, and it’s not misspelt. We partnered with the San Diego Youth Symphony, their Community Opus Program. Dalouge Smith spoke about that earlier. If you weren’t here, it’s a fantastic youth program of intensive orchestral training. Many of our music kids come from that program.

In the scientific universe these days, multimillion studies of five years of brain growth for music is not quite on the national radar yet of NIH. There are some forward-looking foundations that enabled this project to get started.

In particular, I’d encourage you to look up UC MERCI, which is a new UC President’s Office funded initiative across the state to improve music cognition research.

Here’s the structure of the study. We start off at baseline, before anyone starts music. We measure kids at baseline and then every year for five years.

We measure a series of behavioral measures and brain measures, and we look for the connections. At this point, we’re about halfway through. In fact, we have about 100 kids who we have two years of measurements on.

Music is a big thing. We can’t just look at the effect of music. That makes no sense. What we’ve done is focus on rhythm. This is not an arbitrary choice. In terms of actual skills, it turns out rhythm correlates with many things, like language and attention. It’s a good place to start.

We developed some tests of rhythm using this little guy, Bleepo, who’s on a musical journey. Kids follow along with him and see how well he’s doing.

One test is a beat perception, our ability to perceive the beat. I’d like us to try it out now. The question is, is Bleepo playing along on the beat? There’ll be music and beeps. You just have to listen and decide he is doing.
You can bob your head and tap your foot if you want. Okay, great job, right? Yes, I do have to admit, we subjected these tender kids to 80s rock music.

Here’s another example. Okay; not so good. An unexpected outcome came out of this. On the second year, lots of kids who came back remembered Bleepo. He was doing just as badly in year two as he was in year one. They said, “Bleepo really needs to practice harder. He didn’t get any better.”

Here are some results. These are results from a test of tapping accuracy, tapping along with the metronome. This shows at baseline all of the students we have, the 100 we have two years of data on.
It shows that accuracy improves over time, as shown by the black line. The blue dots are control kids without music. The red dots are kids who are learning music. What happens in year two? Are kids going to follow that same average curve or will there be more variation?

Of course, growing up isn’t easy. There are variations all over the place. Some kids get better, some kids get worse. In particular, looking at the music kids, we see that in all cases they’re getting better.
That was really the unexpected finding. It’s not necessarily that music kids get better faster on the whole, but they just get better more consistently than the control group.

The other thing is we found lots of people who got a lot better than would be expected just by the normal age progression. Importantly, we also found that these music kids did better on various tests of language perception connected with this synchronization.

The real question is, how does this depend on the brain? What’s going on in the brain?

Here’s an example of another finding where we found that last test that we did, the beat perception test, this area of cortex that is responsible for motor planning and motor execution predicts how well people do on the beat perception test.

Even if we take out all of that age variation, we still have this predictive relationship. Larger motor cortex improves beat perception, or at least it’s correlated with. That’s pretty neat. We have a perceptual process that’s being shaped and influenced, perhaps, by motor cortex.

It will take us a few more years until we’re really confident with these findings, until we know for sure if it’s music that’s enlarging the cortex or there’s, maybe, some kind of inbuilt variability.

Assuming that we get there, let’s go back to our friend Genie. She returns to the doctor two years later for her next brain checkup and he finds that those areas that they had targeted with music are doing fine. They’re back on track.

I’d like to end there, and just remind you music is important, I think. Music and kids seems like a good combination.

It’s important to remember that music training isn’t necessarily just for training great musicians like we’ve seen earlier. It can also benefit kids who aren’t musical. In particular, maybe it will benefit the kids who are least musical best.

In closing, I just want you to take this away: making music matters.