Music Training and a Sensitive Period

Jun 05 2013 Published by under Behavioral Neuro

I started piano lessons when I was 4-5 years old. I remember years of piano teachers, forced half hours on the piano, and kicking around my piano teacher's house waiting for my brother to finish his half hour. By the time I entered middle school and took up band instead, we kids were able to successfully petition to be let off the piano lessons. I wish to this day that I was a better pianist, but I definitely don't miss the practicing.

But I've wondered if they did me some good. After I stopped the piano, I picked up the clarinet. And I was pretty good at it. Then I started singing, and I turned out to be a decently talented singer.  Now, I'm no pro, but I think I pass for an ok amateur. For some of this, I know I had a leg up, after all, I could read sheet music and didn't have to be taught from day one (thank you, piano teachers!).

But what if it was more than just being able to tell a treble from a bass clef? What if the early music training made a deep impression on my brain?

Steele et al. "EarlyMusical Training andWhite-Matter Plasticity in the
Corpus Callosum: Evidence for a Sensitive Period" Journal of Neuroscience, 2013.

The authors of this study wanted to look at whether or not there is a "sensitive period" for music training in humans. A sensitive period is a point in an animal's development when they are particularly susceptible to certain simuli. So for example, there is a known sensitive period in humans for things like learning a language, where earlier training is always better for teaching a first or second language. So for example, a child who is deaf who gets cochlear implants very early in development will have an easier time with language than one who gets them later.

Animals also have sensitive periods, where they are more susceptible to things like sound, say. And their brains reflect this, as training during their sensitive periods with sound produces increased plasticity in the auditory areas of the brain.

So what about humans and music? After all, the vast majority of the great musicians out there began music training at a very early period, usually before they were 7 years old. Does this early training change their brain?

Earlier studies have shown that musicians trained from an early age have more white matter than those trained at a later age...but they didn't control for how much training the musicians had overall. So it could be that the white matter increase was just the result of more overall training, rather than when the training began.

To look at this, the authors of the study took 36 people (18 in each group) who were highly trained musicians, all with equal years of total musical experience and years of total training experience. One group began music education before age 7, the other after age 7. All had at least 7 years of musical experience, and were enrolled in a music program at a university or were pros. They also had a control group of non musicians.

They tested them all on a task for timing and synchronization (something that musicians should probably be pretty good at) where the participants have to tap in synchrony with short and long visual cue patterns, a lot like reading music. Everyone had two days to learn the sequence, and had to achieve 80% accuracy.

The participants were also tested with diffusion tensor imaging, an imaging technique which does nothing but tell the difference between grey matter (neuronal cell bodies) and white matter (glia and myelinated axons) in the brain. White matter in the brain represents connections, and the authors were particularly interested in the corpus callosum, a thick bundle of white matter that connects the right and left halves of the brain. Previous studies showed that the corpus callosum was thicker in participants with early music training. But was this due to the early training? Or just more training all together?

To start with, above you can see the behavioral data. The musicians that got early training are in red, the later trained musicians are in blue, and the non-musicians are in black. You can see that the non-musicians performed worse on the task, both in accuracy with the rhythm (the left graph), and in how well they matched the visual stimulus (synchronicity, on the right). Both groups of musicians performed better, but the early trained group did best, especially on synchronicity.

When the authors looked at the white matter tracts, they found something similar.

What you can see above are both correlations with white matter track volume in images, and a graph showing the overall differences. You can see that the non-musician group had lower white matter density than the early OR late trained musicians. The authors also did correlations and concluded that the early trained musicians had greater measurements than the late trained musicians. Most particularly, they found differences in the white matter tracts that connect the sensorimotor areas of brain on either side, suggesting more connectivity there, which might explain the better performance in the behavioral task.

Does this mean that you need to start your kid on music before age 7 if you want to raise the next Yo-Yo Ma?

It's tough to say. The early trained group definitely out-performed the late trained group on the motor tasks. The differences in white matter are there, though slight, and could be meaningful.

I certainly believe that early music training can increase white matter in these areas, and it can also definitely increase how well kids (and eventually, musicians) perform. But is it the early training? Or other things that might go along with it? Did they match for socioeconomic class and education? For example, people of higher socio-economic class are more likely to be able to afford things like music lessons at an early age, and they will ALSO be able to other things that can influence development: a better diet, more interaction time both with adults and other children, more exposure to other things like organized sports, etc. In other words, I wonder how much this "sensitive period" is really a sensitive period of privileged upbringing, rather than one involving music specifically. It would be nice to separate that out and deliberately look at socio-economic status.

I'm also still wondering about the experience matching. They required that people have at least 7 years of musical experience, and be old enough to be in university or pro. But 7 years of musical experience if you started before age 7 makes you more than a bit young. I wonder if they were truly able to get rid of the effect that amount of experience might have. A way to look at this would be to look at the correlations between the total number of years of music training and the white matter thickness. If the slope is steeper for the early training group, it might help back up the point. They did do the correlations for age of onset (how early the training started), but not for total number of training years. I wonder if it would come out.

But early music training may indeed be in a sensitive period, where kids are better able to benefit from the lessons. It could be that kids trained early get a neurobiological leg up on the competition. But even if you started late, don't worry too much. After all, even the late trained musicians in this study made it on to university and even went professional. Even if you miss the sensitive period, practice can still make perfect. The sensitive period just may give you that extra boost.

Steele, C., Bailey, J., Zatorre, R., & Penhune, V. (2013). Early Musical Training and White-Matter Plasticity in the Corpus Callosum: Evidence for a Sensitive Period Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (3), 1282-1290 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3578-12.2013

8 responses so far

  • Adrian Cho says:

    Interesting. Both our kids take music lessons and started at 7. When I asked around at music shops teachers generally did *not* want to see kids at younger ages. So at least around here (metro Detroit), there seems to be a bias at starting before then. My sense is they think that younger kids won't be able to follow instruction. Also, as guitar players say, it's not the years, it's the hours. Perhaps in the sample in this study the folks who started before 7 got a lot more encouragement/pressure (let's be honest) from their folks to practice and may have accumulated more hours of musical training even when compared to late-starting subjects with similar numbers of years of experience.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I have the idea from somewhere that having perfect pitch is a result of keyboard training at a very early age. In any case, my wife started piano at age 5 and has perfect pitch. Just an anecdote.

  • Bashir says:

    There is a researcher who studies pitch perception including perfect pitch. She has some very interesting stuff including some studies where she has people or varying experience level sing back melodies to her. It results in some pretty hilarious and informative video data. I'll have to find her name again...

  • Naomi Cunningham says:

    Is anyone looking at how closely (if at all) musical learning is related to language acquisition? I've read speculation (Steven Mithen: the Singing Neanderthals) that language may have evolved out of music. My hunch is that there's a window of opportunity for acquiring a deep and intuitive understanding of music very similar to the window for acquiring a mother tongue.

    • Bashir says:

      I think there are. There was a talk here about that I unfortunately missed. I will do a little digging and try to write a post about it.

  • Bashir says:

    A few links to some researchers

    Psyche Loui:

    Caroline Palmer :

    I've seen them both talk. There's even a TEDx talk:

  • Bashir says:

    Sci, I think I put too many links in a comment. can you un-SPAM me?

  • scicurious says:

    I gotcha!

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