The ties between music and our emotional and cognitive state as humans are as old as music itself. But beyond both its soothing and energizing effects, music has been shown to play a tangible role in learning and development in young people.

A 2012 study by the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) at USC ran for five years and showed that playing instruments and learning about music sped up the development of the auditory systems in the brain. (USC.edu)

In the study, children began learning to play instruments, such as the violin. They practiced these instruments up to seven hours per week.

This group was compared directly against other groups of children in soccer programs and other after school programs, and after 2 years the study showed that the kids that stuck with the musical instruments were developing more quickly. The reinforcement to their auditory centers positively affected their reading and language abilities compared to the other groups.

The link between a person’s ability to process auditory information and communication skills was clear. From the aforementioned article:

“The auditory system connects our ear to our brain to process sound. When we hear something, our ears receive it in the form of vibrations that it converts into a neural signal. That signal is then sent to the brainstem, up to the thalamus at the center of the brain, and outward to its final destination, the primary auditory cortex, located near the sides of the brain.”

In a separate but related study by Robert Zatorre (referenced here), researchers discovered that professional musicians have 130% more grey matter in the auditory cortex than non-musicians. That, as the document points out, is a significant difference.

Those are intriguing findings academically, but this type of research has also illuminated some very practical use cases.

Studies of Music Therapy and Physical Recovery

A research paper entitled, “Music Listening after Stroke: Beneficial Effects and Potential Neural Mechanisms” by Teppo Sarkamo and David Soto talks specifically about how music therapy has helped those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBI). 

Many people with traumatic brain injuries caused by strokes experience loss of control over certain limbs or entire sections of the body. Interestingly, music therapy was shown to improve sensorimotor function — or the ability to manage muscle movement. 

A subsection of music therapy called “Music-Movement Therapy” targets the areas of the body most affected by strokes, and has been successful in rehabilitating those body parts. 

Participants in the study that underwent MMT (as opposed to the control group) were able to regain the use of those body parts, and showed a marked improvement in emotional health as well.

It’s not to say necessarily that these people regained full use of affected limbs like before they’d had a stroke in all cases, but certainly regained meaningful function when contrasted with the control group that did not receive the Music-Movement Therapy.

Music Therapy and Autism

Because of the way music helps us explore our feelings and relationships with others, it’s no surprise that along the way scientists began asking if music therapy could be used to help those with autism.

A 2014 study by Geretsegger, Elefant, Mossler, and Gold noted that people with autism often struggle with social interaction and communication — often specifically in feeling things and not knowing how to articulate those feelings. (Or not always being able to understand or anticipate the feelings of others.)

Their study involved 165 participants over a span of seven months, introducing music therapy in both short term and medium term interventions. Ultimately, the study consistently showed the group receiving music therapy had improvements in relationships with parents, general communication skills, and social-emotional reciprocity. (Source)

The participants also experience a greater sense of joy and social adaptation with no reported side effects, compared to the placebo control group.

The takeaway of that study seems to reinforce the link between music and how we both understand our own feelings and relate to others. This is true for everyone, but music seems effective at overcoming the barriers autism tends to create socially. When an autistic person undergoes music therapy and is able to better understand their own feelings and the feelings of others, it seems to make them feel less alone or isolated. 

Naturally, that explains the observations of greater joy and well-being.

Since crucial parts of daily communication involve interpreting body language and vocal tone — things those with autism often struggle with — it is fascinating to observe the way music transcends that. 

Much of the emotion certain songs convey is told through the musical tones and rhythms and not simply the words, something that is evidently more universally understood. Additionally, songs about a particular feeling, situation, or life experience tend to be focused there as a result. This makes the words less ambiguous than conversation can be.

In conclusion… 

Modern research is showing a variety of exciting ties between music and cognitive development. The applications are relevant for schools and the way we educate children, rehabilitate adults, or even help those with cognitive impairments share their gifts.

We look forward to further studies of how we can integrate music and music therapy into our lives, and how we at Point Motion can utilize our software to make that process more accessible.