Music and Cognition

Have you ever heard the saying that a person can play music by ear?  I always found this to be a bit perplexing.  I began learning the cello when I was in 5th grade and continued until 8th grade.  I still remember bass clef  to this day, however I could never play a song on my cello just from hearing it once.  I would need sheet music.

So for these people that are able to play by ear, is music like a language to them?  Are their ears tuned to the pitches and tones as if it were the back of their hand?

I have also heard that music improves cognition.  For example if you practice music you perform better in math.  I heard this frequently in Orchestra and with all the time measures it makes sense.  Music is built on time, timing, and tempo.  The brain becomes a timer that syncs your arm movements to match the tempo of the Orchestra.  It is quite fascinating how it all comes together.  But does music actually have anything to do with improved cognition?  Some people believe so.


Image result for music by ear

Two scientists at University of Auckland, Patston and Tippett tested two groups of adults to investigate a similar matter.  The study was about whether brains of musician’s process music in the same brain area where language is processed.

The first group was of 36 musicians that had been studying music for at least 10 years and had experience with performing at University or national level.  The non-musicians had less than four years of musical training or no training.

Each participant had completed language comprehension tests and tests of visuospatial ability.  Each test was given under three different conditions– a test was given in silence, classical music on the piano played correctly, and classical music played on the piano incorrectly.

When observing results musicians performed better than the non-musicians on both tests under all conditions.  Musical training seems to enhance cognitive ability.

The test has room for inaccuracy however due to there being a possibility of IQ levels being different between the two groups.

Non-musician’s test scores had no significant difference when testing under the different musical conditions.  Only two out of the entire group even noticed that one portion of the music being played was being performed out of key.

When being given the visuospatial tests the musicians performed well regardless of the inclusion of music or silence.    Music is processed with different brain areas than the visuospatial stimuli are processed.  It was expected to do no harm on the score.

However when analyzing the language tests, the musicians performed worse on the test than when music was playing.  This result possibly proves that music and language are being processed by the same neural networks.

It could not be an issue of divided attention, or being distracted by the music.  If it was the muscleman would have done equally bad on the visuospatial test.  Meaning that musicians process music as a language.

So perhaps these talented people that can play by ear process music like a language too?  Which would make it so much easier for them to re-enact it. Can this process be learned for just anyone if enough time is put in?




3 thoughts on “Music and Cognition

  1. mbap

    This is an interesting idea. I played the trumpet for 4 years so I am wondering if it had an affect on my cognition or not. Overall this seems like a great study but I’d like to see others to see if they support it or not.

  2. Ashlyn

    Having a musical background I found this article very interesting. I learned the violin in 4th grade, the euphonium in 5th grade, the tuba in 6th grade, and the string bass senior year of high school. When I joined the orchestra senior year my director had perfect pitch. You probably know what that is, but for non musical people, it means that in a sea of orchestra she could tell, not only if someone was off pitch, but which instrument and where they were. Your write up sort of reminded me of her. It is like pitch is her language. Throughout my time in band all my directors would talk about how having the ability to read sheet music makes us smarter (aka improves cognition) and makes us have better discipline.

  3. apelduna

    I also played the cello when I was younger (along with a number of other instruments). While I did learn to read music, I found my experience was actually opposite of yours. I tended to play pieces by ear. I’d listen to my orchestra director play the piece or listen to recordings and then would just mimic what I had heard. Usually after hearing a piece a number of times, I knew how it should go and I’d just practice until what I played sounded the same. I’m sure it helped to have other members of the orchestra to follow or to accompany me, but even when I played solos or the other members were playing something very different (like when I played in a quartet), I still didn’t find myself relying on the music. Reading music was kind of something I did because it seemed like a necessary skill and it was helpful to be able to read and follow along. But to me, any instrument I learned, I first played by ear.

    In response to what you wrote about the study, I also think it’s funny because I’ve always found it distracting to listen to music when I’m trying to do homework or study. I have friends who will play music while they are reading or studying. This drives me nuts. I can’t stop my mind from listening to and following along with the music …even if there are no words. It’s interesting to know that it may not just be that I’m easily distracted, but instead that the same part of my brain is trying to process multiple stimuli.

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