Posted by Dalouge Smith, Dr. John Iversen, Mar 20, 2015

Music is a central part of life for many of us, whether we listen, dance or play. It makes us feel good, or transports our imagination, but what is going on in our brain? Can music be used to help an ailing brain, or boost a learning one? An emerging field of Music Cognition is studying these important questions using new tools such as brain imaging that allow us to examine how the brain is changed by music. In this post we would like to tell you about one study we are doing that is trying to answer some of these questions.

imagesIn a collaboration between the University of California, San Diego, and the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, we have started the SIMPHONY project to ask the important question: “How does music change a child’s brain?”

We already know that if you measure an adult musician’s brain that there are measurable differences: Violinists, for example, have a larger part of the motor cortex controlling their left hand than non violinists. But there is the age old question of nature vs. nurture—is a violinist good because their brain started off with a specialized part, or did learning violin change their brain? As with all either/or questions, the answer is surely some of both!

Stepping back, a deep question in our education systems is how to help each child reach their full potential. The SIMPHONY project hopes to be part of the answer by examining how experiences, such as learning to play a musical instrument, have an effect on many other skills, like attention or speech perception. Going further, we would like to understand how these crossover effects, some of which have already been demonstrated by other researchers, reflect actual changes in the brain.

Why now? This is an exciting time in brain science. Much as any doctor has a height and weight chart for growing children, we are starting to discover that different parts of the brain also have their own growth curves. While we know good nutrition can help a child increase their height. Is music something that can do the same for brain growth?

What we’ll do: We will measure the brains and skills of children once a year for five years. Some children will be learning music in SDYS’ intensive Community Opus Project, an El Sistema inspired program. Others will not. We will look to see if the music training changes the development of different skills and different parts of the brain compared to those not learning music. We can measure how the size of the brain changes, and how the important connections between different parts of the brain develop.

We have already found some interesting connections between the development of the motor system and children’s varied abilities to move in time with music, something that has been found to relate to many other skills such as language and attention. This raises the possibility that we will find that parts of the brain will develop faster in children who study music, leading to improvements in language and attention skills.

It is still too early to say we have definitive answers on our question of how music helps a child’s brain development, but we hope that we have given you some insight into the questions and methods we are using to get rigorous answers to important questions about music and the child’s brain. Stay tuned—as we continue to study children over several more years, we will be able to tell you more.

You can help by telling our leaders that understanding the impact of music, and arts in general, on children is a critical question to study. Scientific research dollars have often not been directed to music and arts research. We received a University of California President’s Research Catalyst Award to form a new research network on music and the brain in California (, but could use everyone’s help to establish this as a critical question on our nation’s research agenda.

Please keep in touch!

University of California, San Diego SIMPHONY project:

San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory:

Editor’s Note: This post was written in association with cognitive neuroscientist Dr. John Iversen, an Associate Project Scientist with The Center for Human Development at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Iversen studies the effects of music on the brain and is currently directing the SIMPHONY Project.