Music and the brain: what's true and what's false?

From the famous "Mozart effect" to absolute pitch, the effects of music upon the brain, proven by scientists, are nonetheless surrounded by erroneous presumptions. What is true and what is false? Here is an overview with the Quebecer neuroscientist Isabelle Peretz.

Music and the brain: what's true and what's false?
Music and the brain, © Getty / Libre de droits

1. Listening to Mozart makes us smarter

FALSE. What if, after only 10 minutes of listening to Mozart's music, our IQ could increase? In 1993, Frances Rauscher and her team of Californian researchers claimed this exact hypothesis, which quickly spread like wildfire and eventually led to the birth of the most famous music myth of them all, the Mozart effect.

In the prestigious American scientific publication Nature, Rauscher published a study showing that after only 10 minutes listening to Mozart's Sonata for two pianos in D major K 448, the adolescent subjects were able to solve various tests of spatial intelligence more easily. 

The claim was ground-breaking. Mozart was therefore played everywhere, rats and plants were tested, pregnant women and new-born children were subjected to compilations of Mozart's works in maternity wards, and several American States even went so far as to force day care centres to play Mozart on a daily basis. The market for Mozart-branded audio equipment - meant to make children and adults smarter - grew rapidly. Although studies repeatedly sought to disprove Rauscher's controversial claim and results, the myth of the Mozart effect had already taken hold and was firmly in place. So is there any truth in this myth? 

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Be it Mozart, Bach or Michael Jackson, it is the music that we enjoy above all that improves our cognitive faculties, for it brings us joy, explains Quebecer neuroscientist Isabelle Peretz in her book Apprendre la musique, nouvelles des neurosciences. More important still, if listening to music has a positive impact upon our brain, musical performance possesses an even greater impact upon our intellectual performance.

The researcher cites studies upon various groups of students of different ages, whom after having a music lesson (piano or singing) at school, showed a greater success rate in other graded subjects. "Learning to play music is of the utmost importance when part of general education, in particular from the age of six months to the end of adolescence. Music favours the intellectual and social faculties of a child's brain, but only alongside a general education, and not instead of one", concludes Isabelle Peretz.

2. All musicians are good at maths

FALSE. 2500 years ago, Pythagoras saw music as a mathematical science, similar to arithmetic, astronomy and geometry. During the Medieval period, music was one of the seven taught subjects, alongside literature, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. Numerous composers throughout history used mathematics as a source of inspiration for their musical compositions, Johann-Sebastien Bach being the most illustrious example, applying the principles of number theory and mathematical series to many of his works, most notably The Musical Offering.

The contrary however is also true: scientists, physicists, and mathematicians can also be excellent musicians. Another prominent example: Albert Einstein, an excellent violinist. But does this mean that a predisposition for music naturally implies a better understanding of mathematics, as we tend to believe?

For Isabelle Peretz, these are two distinct forms of intelligence: "Music and mathematics share several mechanisms, much like language and music share various mechanisms. However, comparing in general terms the faculties and forms of intelligence required for music and mathematics allows for an easier comparison of the two but not an understanding of their operating mechanisms."

3. Listening to music makes us feel good

TRUE. Do you still get goosebumps after listening to your favourite song for the hundredth time? This sensation embodies perfectly the effects of music upon our neurons. Why do we listen to music for hours on end? Why do we run with eager anticipation to our rehearsals after a long and tiring day at the office? Because music makes us feel good.

Isabelle Peretz explains that this feeling of satisfaction comes from the dopamine naturally secreted into what is known as the reward circuit of the body. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter of pleasure and motivation, the same that is felt during a delicious meal but also following the use of drugs or during sexual intercourse.  

"If you ask a group of students what brings them the greatest pleasure in life, they will tell you that music comes just after sex and sunshine, followed by food and sleep", explains Isabelle Peretz.

Hard to ignore music's positive aspects on the brain. It's (mostly) free, socially gratifying, excellent for your health, and completely legal...what more could one ask for!

4. To become a musician, start playing before the age of 3

FALSE. In the world of music performance, this is the myth that haunts the minds of many young parents. From musical awakening in utero to pre-natal musical exposure, music is introduced into the lives of children at an increasingly younger age. One must act quickly. Before the age of three years old, cognitive faculties are at their peak, and if you miss the boat, your child's fate will be sealed forever: he will never become a musician.

This belief is rooted deep in the theory of the critical learning stages, moments in a child's cognitive development where certain skills are learned faster, due to their priority. For example, at birth, a baby is born with the predisposed ability to learn any and all languages in the world, an ability that decreases during his first year in direct correlation with his mother tongue. This does not, however, signify that the child will lose all abilities to learn new sounds and languages in the future.

Recent neuroscientific discoveries have confirmed this fact. Cerebral plasticity, the ability of the human brain to change and reorganise its connections following new experiences and learned skills, lasts a lifetime. In other words: contrary to popular belief even just a few years ago, our brains can create new connections between neurons even at an older age! 

Isabelle Peretz states: "Four months of serious piano lessons, and learning how to read music, improves not only the mood in those over 70, but also the "executive" activities such as attention and forward-thinking".

It must also be noted that learning music has a protective effect upon the brain: for example, musicians are less likely to suffer from an age-related loss of hearing. If an early initiation into music does in fact stimulate faster learning, why hold back? We can become musicians at any age in life!

5. We either have talent or we don't

FALSE. We are either born talented or not...this is the idea that kills the ambition of any amateur musician. Is there a musical gene? What is the role of talent? Can one be a music whizz, similar to a math whizz?

We no longer look at unusual head shapes and sizes in search of indications of natural predispositions as did Franz Joseph Gall, a contemporary of Mozart and the founder of phrenology. The "bump" of criminality, the "bump" of mathematics and the "bump" of music are today considered accidents of the history of science. However, we are nonetheless not all equal when it comes to learning music, and the reason for this lies in our genetic heritage.

With regards to music, as with other artistic disciplines, a pinch of talent is never unwanted. With the same amount of practise, those with a greater predisposition will naturally advance faster. Isabelle Peretz compares musical talent to trees: the tallest aren't those that received the most water, but those with the strongest genes. However, genetic predisposition has fortunately been generously distributed: studies have shown that 95% of the population is entirely capable of attaining an excellent level in music, with sufficient training and time invested.

However, genes are not the only "masters in control", adds Isabelle Peretz. "One's environment can influence the way genetic code is expressed through an individual". In other words, only a favourable environment will allow one's talent to come through, and vice versa.

Statistically, no more than 2.5% of people possess no genetic predisposition to music. The rest are those considered amusical, those suffering from a neurogenetic anomaly rendering the learning of music extremely difficult.

6. All musicians have perfect pitch

FALSE. This is the holy grail of any musician in training. The ability to identify the name of any note played is for many an extremely desirable, and seemingly unattainable, skill. There was a time when perfect pitch was amongst the criteria of any music conservatoire entrance examination. Many a musician have less-than-fond memories of musical dictations, where only one person was able to answer correctly and monopolise the teacher's attention, whilst the others mentally calculated the intervals played during several seemingly-endless minutes.

However, what we don't know is that many of the people with this "gift" have admitted that they would very much like to lose it. The systematic translation of any and all sounds into musical notes - police sirens, telephone ringtones, elevator sounds, etc - may eventually lead to an annoyance. Going to a concert and noticing every single mistuned note can become torturous. 

Furthermore, not only is having perfect patch in no way proof of an exceptional musical talent, but only 10% of Western musicians are said to have this ability.

But where does perfect pitch come from? According to Isabelle Peretz, it is due to a structural difference in the brain present from birth, the result of the expression of a multiplicity of genes, with no impact on an individual's cognitive faculties. A form of synaesthesia, an involuntary association between a sound and a word, stemming from the activation of "connections between adjacent neuronal networks, inhibited in a normal brain", as explained by Peretz.

So, even if you do not have perfect pitch, are over the critical age of three years, and are terrible at maths, you are still talented enough to start learning music. And your brain will forever thank you for it!