Musical Ability and the Brain

Scott Simon talks with Stanford University professor Keith Devlin about new research that shows some correlation between cognitive ability and the ability to play a musical instrument.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

A new study from research done at Stanford University is proving that the ability to play a musical instrument helps the brain fire at faster speeds, and that can increase the ability to read and perform basic math. Our basic Math Guy here is Keith Devlin, who joins us now from the campus of Stanford to explain this research.

Keith, thanks for being with us.

KEITH DEVLIN (Math Guy):

Hi, Scott. Good to be here.

SIMON: Now this isn't the Mozart effect, right?

DEVLIN: No, it isn't, and there actually isn't a Mozart effect. Or at least if there is, it's so small and so inconsequential that really one shouldn't be making a fuss about it. What we have with the Mozart effect is a big business for selling music and books.

SIMON: It certainly worked with our family. What can I tell you?

DEVLIN: Yeah. The original research that led to the Mozart effect was genuine research. A couple of researchers purported to have established a link between listening to Mozart and the ability to perform a certain spatial reasoning task. It's just that it got immediately blown up by the media and became the scientific equivalent of an urban legend.

SIMON: But I'll just bet this research at Stanford was different, right?

DEVLIN: That's typical.

SIMON: Because the Stanford people wouldn't make a mistake like that.

DEVLIN: Right. Yeah. I think there's a danger of the same thing happening with this Stanford research. The researchers--it was a former colleague of mine called John Gabrielli(ph). It was fMRI research where they sort of put people in an fMRI machine and look at their brain activity while they subject them to various stimuli. Some of the subjects were trained musicians, people who played an instrument and had done most of their lives. And the other subjects were people who didn't play an instrument and maybe had interest in music, but they weren't musicians. What Gabrielli did was subject them to syllables from words. For example, take the words `bad,' meaning not good, and `dad,' meaning father. Now you've got the beginning syllables...

SIMON: It takes--I must say, it takes someone from the British Isle to put four syllables in the word `bad.'

DEVLIN: I obviously wouldn't have been the person to record the voices for doing it. But if you take the initial syllables...

SIMON: Yeah.

DEVLIN: ...`ba' and `da,' the human ear, the human auditory system distinguishes those in a fraction of a second and it turns out that musicians can distinguish `ba' and `da' faster and better than non-musicians. So the ability that musicians clearly have of being able to distinguish musical tones seems to pass over to an ability to distinguish between syllables of words. And so there certainly is the potential--this is now an established scientific result--and it does have the potential for helping us to learn how to deal with dyslexia and so forth. But the step from what's been discovered here at Stanford last year to being able to something considerable with people with language disabilities is a huge one and it will almost certainly take many years, if indeed it it's made at all.

SIMON: What about the linkage that a lot of people see, at least anecdotally, between music and mathematical ability?

DEVLIN: Yeah. And in fact, the original researchers that did the work that led to the Mozart effect had speculated on that. And it certainly--as a mathematician, I find it highly believable that there would be a strong connection between--because mathematics is about understanding and analyzing patterns. And music is audible patterns in time. And so reasoning about music and reasoning about mathematics, understanding music, understanding mathematics, listening to music, thinking about mathematics, at least to my mind, as a mathematician, and a mathematician who likes music but isn't a musician, there's a lot of similarities between them. They're all about discerning and dealing with patterns. If we ever establish that scientifically, it's going to be a long way off and the Mozart effect, as I said, doesn't do that, hasn't done that, and doesn't really exist.

SIMON: Do you play a musical instrument, Keith?

DEVLIN: When I was a teen-ager, I used to play the drums, and I certainly have a fascination with rhythms. But since I went to college, I gave up playing the drums; I didn't have time, and I haven't played an instrument ever since.

SIMON: So, Keith, do you mean it could've been John, Paul, George and Keith?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEVLIN: I mean, I could claim that before Pete Best, there was Keith Devlin, but no one would believe me, with justification. I don't have the right English accent, anyway.

SIMON: Keith?

DEVLIN: Yes?

SIMON: I still want to hold your hand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEVLIN: I'm delighted to hear it, Scott. Let's get a ticket to ride.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Keith.

DEVLIN: OK. My pleasure, Scott, as always.

SIMON: Our Math Guy, Keith Devlin, who's executive director at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University. His most recent book is "The Math Instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius"--I don't think he means all of us--"Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats and Dogs."

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