The purpose of this research was to analyse the effects of studying music on brain waves. The beta wave data was most closely examined because of the correspondence with attention. This is because of the theory that a musician’s intelligence increases partly because of attention’s role as a mediating executive function. An electroencephalogram (EEG) was built specifically for this study in order to gain concrete, numerical values for the brain waves. The 30 participants made up two test groups: musicians and non-musicians. Each subject participated in three sections. From the 9000 brain wave data points collected, it was discovered that the musicians had statistically significant higher maximum levels of attention than non-musicians while facing a mentally demanding activity. However, while performing an engaging yet simple daily task such as reading, the brain wave pattern differences between the musicians and non-musicians were statistically insignificant. Another discovery was made through the examination of the alpha waves: the musicians had statistically significant higher maximum levels of meditation than the non-musicians while trying to relax, possibly because of the role alpha waves play in blocking out irrelevant stimuli. The results of this study reveal possibilities for the future treatment of patients with attention deficit disorders or anxiety disorders. A mixture of music therapy and neurological treatment could be extraordinarily beneficial to the patient, especially if biofeedback and EEG technology are combined to allow the patient to monitor progress.
Keywords: neuroscience, electroencephalogram, music therapy, attention
Many people have heard of the “Mozart Effect” or an idea similar to it. This hypothesis questions whether a person who listens to the compositions of Mozart before a test will score higher on the test than a person who does not. Similarly, if a person played classical music for a child in preschool, would that child become more intelligent. However, merely listening to classical music is a passive activity, which is not as engaging as music lessons. The combination of learning the notation, the theory, and the technique of playing the instrument, along with memorisation and long periods of focused attention has been linked to positively affecting cognitive abilities. This is most dramatically evident when musical training begins in the early childhood years due to the plasticity of the brain and high sensitivity to environmental factors.
The engaging practice of studying music has been discovered to increase intelligence in a long-term, sustainable fashion. It has also been discovered that during musical training, executive functions (the mental processes that control higher cognitive tasks) act as mediators in the increase of intelligence. Attention is often referred to as the foundation of executive function because it is one of the two most influential functions (inhibition being the other most influential), especially while studying music and the brain. Based on the pre-established understanding that music lessons increase intelligence and that attention is a mediating function in the process, this study utilised electroencephalogram (EEG) technology in order to understand whether people who have been studying music for many years have differences in their brain waves from those who have never studied music. The beta waves and the alpha waves were most closely analysed (Figure 1). The purpose for measuring the alpha waves in this study was so that the effectiveness of the participant’s mental relaxation could be measured. If the EEG measured more waves between the frequencies of 10 to 13 times per second, then that person was more able to become calm and meditative. Similarly, the beta waves were measured in this study so that the effectiveness of the participant’s attention, focus, and problem-solving abilities could be measured. More waves between the frequencies of 13 to 35 times per second meant a better ability to concentrate and make calculated decisions. The other frequencies of brain waves (such as delta and theta) were not analysed because they are not relevant to concentration and relaxation.
Design and Participants
Each of the 30 subjects, aged 14 to 19, who participated in the study went through three sections. The music test group was composed of 17 subjects who had been studying music for at least five years and who had started studying music between the ages of four and ten. Eleven were female, three were male, and two chose not to select a gender identity. In this study, “studying music” is defined as learning to play an instrument or sing while studying the technique, theory, and performance practices that come along with being a musician. The non-music test group was composed of 13 participants who had never studied music in their lives outside of the mandatory general music class in primary school and middle school. Seven were female, six were male, and one chose not to select a gender identity.
The study participants represented a wide range of ethnicities and household income classes: white/Caucasian, black/African American, and Asian, with incomes from below $65,000 to above $180,000. All participants were either enrolled in high school or pursuing an undergraduate degree within the northeastern United States. Since the purpose of the study was to understand the effects of studying music on brain waves, it was important to ask all participants if they had started studying music as a child, so that it had an effect on their brains while they were most malleable.
Participants were obtained by opportunity sampling. An outreach was posted on social media and interested participants replied to the post. Implied consent was given since the participants volunteered for the study and were aware of the procedures. The participants who were under 18 years old parents’ gave implied consent as well since they drove the students to the site of the study and were aware of the procedure and machine as well.
Since the nature of the study was opportunity sampling, it happened that the music test group was uneven between males and females. There were eight more females than males, making the test group gynocentric. Therefore, it is not completely possible to generalize the results to the entire population. However, there was not a clear distinction between the results of one sex over the other in the non-music test group (which was much more evenly split) so the data is still considered reliable enough to draw conclusions.
The study took place in a quiet room with no auditory or visual distractions. The table had two five-dollar bills taped to it as the exam performance incentive.
The first section utilised excerpts from a released SAT test. The SAT is a test used in the United States for college admissions. Questions from the SAT were used because it is a standardised test which requires high levels of attention. The second section used a children’s book called Santa’s Favorite Storybook.
The study also involved a pre-survey and post-survey (see Appendix A and B). The pre-survey confirmed that all participants had gotten at least seven hours of sleep the night before, had not ingested any caffeine within the last six hours, and were not taking any medications that would affect the subject’s brain waves.
There are a few select headsets with a built-in Neurosky chip, and the “Force Trainer II”, was the headset used to make the EEG in this study. To redirect the data into the computer and capture the waves, an Arduino Uno chip was utilized using rough guidelines by Reference 12. No code was prewritten for this particular headset, so one written for a similar headset was rewritten and added on to.
The EEG had three electrodes: one placed on frontal polar 1 (referring to the 10 20 placement system) and the other two placed behind the ears for ground. The FP1 electrode was the sole recording lead. The code which translated the data from the Neurosky chip displayed numerical values from 0 to 100. For the beta waves, 0 would be least attentive and 100 would be most attentive, and for the alpha waves, 0 would be least relaxed and 100 would be most relaxed. The system collected one data point per second.
The evening before the procedure, all participants were instructed to get plenty of sleep and to not drink caffeine within six hours of their scheduled time. Caffeine was avoided because of its effects on performance, learning, and therefore brain waves  When each participant arrived at the site of the procedure, they took a pre-survey (See Appendix A).
To ensure the ethical treatment of the participants, each subject was informed of what was occurring during every step of EEG placement upon the head. They were also informed of how the EEG was made and how it would not cause them any harm. After making sure that nothing about the EEG made them uncomfortable, the participants were informed that they would be not be represented by their names in the study, but by a number in order to ensure anonymity. After the study was completed, the participants were debriefed and informed of the purpose of each section.
The EEG electrodes, which were made of metal, were disinfected between each participant. The most important part of putting the EEG on the participant’s head was to be certain that each electrode made full contact with the skin. This was confirmed by a signal strength monitor coded into the program which displayed a number from 0 to 200; where 0 was a perfect signal and 200 was no signal.
The first section was a reading and math exam of nine questions total. The purpose was to collect each person’s maximum attention potential. The participant was motivated by the information that one of the two five-dollar bills on the table could be theirs if they were one of the top two scorers on the exam. Each person was informed that they would have three minutes to complete the exam. Each participant’s maximum attention during the SAT test was plotted (Figure 2). The degree of intensity was determined by the computer coding based on the frequency of the brain waves and the typical frequency for the wave analysed (either alpha or beta). It is apparent that the music test group participants had more consistently high maximum levels of attention.
The second section was one minute of reading. The purpose of this was to collect each person’s general level of attention and general level of relaxation through both the beta and alpha waves. Since the reading was from a children’s book, it was not a difficult activity, but was still engaging. The participant was given the book and was told to read silently for one minute at a comfortable pace. For both attention (Fig. 3) and meditation (Fig. 4) the music and non-music test groups have similar general levels.
From the third section, maximum meditation was determined by a minute of relaxation. The subject was told to close their eyes and try to relax or meditate as fully as possible. The purpose of this section was to collect information about each participant’s alpha waves. It is apparent that while trying to relax and focus on meditating (Figure 5), the participants of the music test group were more successful.
From the approximately 9000 data points collected from all participant’s brain waves, a clear trend occurred within both the beta waves and the alpha waves. The beta waves collected displayed that musicians tend to have a higher maximum attention value, but a very similar general attention value to the non-musicians. The alpha waves collected displayed that musicians and non-musicians tend to have the same general level of meditation, but when musicians try to relax they are far more successful at entering a meditative state.
The purpose of this study was to understand the effects of studying music on brain waves. Based on the evidence that demonstrates that studying music increases intelligence, this study also questioned whether beta wave activity led attention to be a mediating executive function in the process. From the beta wave data collected in this study, it is evident that musicians had significantly higher maximum attention values than the non-musicians. The musicians had acquired the skill to be more attentive during mentally demanding activities. Learning to play an instrument or to use the voice not only improves musical skills, it improves cognitive ability during challenging non-musical tasks as well. When the participants were asked to meditate and close their eyes, the musicians were able to relax more fully than the non-musicians. A possible cause of this is that when waves are present in the alpha band, they block out stimuli that are not relevant to the task. Therefore, while the musicians were trying to relax and meditate, it is possible that they were more successful than the non-musicians at blocking out unnecessary thoughts and mental activities.
When performing a regular, daily task such as reading, both musicians and non-musicians had similar brain wave patterns in both the alpha and beta waves, as shown by the graphs and the p-values. Therefore, musicians were more able to be maximally attentive and maximally relaxed, but when doing a simple, daily activity they are no more attentive or relaxed than the non-musicians.
Schellenberg demonstrated that engaging in music lessons can increase intelligence. Degé et al. demonstrated that selective attention is one of the two most influential executive functions and can act as a mediator in increasing intelligence. As a person starts to become more attentive, they should logically appear more intelligent as they score higher on a test. Musicians are trained not only to play beautiful music, but also to seemingly be experts at paying attention. Because they are more intently focused on whichever challenging task they are facing, they are able to put more focused mental effort into the purpose of completing the task successfully.
Making music is an engaging and attention demanding activity in all forms including performing, memorizing, understanding technique and theory, and listening to others while in an ensemble setting. As shown by this study, the activities that musicians take part in while learning their instrument or mastering their voice causes their brains to emit slightly different electrical signals, even while performing non-musical tasks.
One possible limitation of the study was that the signal strength between the EEG and the brain waves was not always perfect (perfect is 0). However, if the signal was not perfect then it usually toggled between 0 and 25 while still producing very reliable data. The percent error for the signal strength over the entire study was a calculated 4.77 percent. This limitation was not significant enough to make the data inaccurate. The results of the study are, as a whole, reliable enough to draw conclusions from the data.
The study of the musician’s brain along with the results of this study show promising potential for the future of a mixture of neuroscience and music therapy. It is particularly exciting to observe how just one difference in educational experience can so drastically change brain structure and ability. For children who have learning disabilities, especially ADD or ADHD, the results of this study seem especially promising. A combination of neuroscience, musicology, and pedagogy could be fascinatingly helpful in improving inefficiencies in attention. Additionally, as shown by the dramatic differences in meditation ability between musicians and non-musicians, patients who have trouble relaxing, such as those with anxiety disorders, may also benefit from learning a musical instrument or improving vocal ability. Biofeedback could be a useful tool if the patient is interested in viewing their brain waves and the progress they make as they study music for longer and longer periods of time.
EEG technology is a priceless tool in understanding brain activity and it could be incredibly useful in a music therapy biofeedback setting. A future study could be extraordinarily beneficial if a person with an attention deficit disorder learned to play an instrument or sing, and that person’s brain waves were measured over time in order to track progress. Bettering the mind in the greatly contrasting areas of intense attention and total relaxation are just two of the endless rewards that learning to make beautiful music has to offer.
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Appendix A: Pre-survey
Do you feel particularly stressed (Y or N):
Do feel particularly hungry or thirsty (Y or N):
How alert/awake do you feel right now (on a scale from 1-10):
Are you taking Ativan/Xanax, Klonopin, Adderall, Methylphenidate/Ritalin or any seizure medications:
Have you had any caffeine in the last 6 hours (Y or N):
Number of hours you slept last night:
Appendix B: Post-survey
Test Subject _____
(All answers and test results are kept anonymous. These questions will ensure that my pool of participants is demographically diverse. If you do not feel comfortable answering anything then leave it blank)
Current level of education:
Race (circle): White Black/African American Asian Other
Parents’ highest level of education (circle one):
– Less than a high school diploma
– High school degree or equivalent
– Some college, no degree
– Associate degree
– Bachelor’s degree
– Master’s degree
– Professional degree
Household income (circle one):
– Below $65,000
– Above $180,000
How alert/concentrated do you usually feel during tests (on a scale from 1-10):
How distracted do you usually feel during tests (on a scale from 1-10):
Are you involved in any honors/advanced/AP classes (Y or N):
What is your highest SAT or ACT score:
What was your GPA this past school year (or for Quarter 4 specifically) (on a 100 point scale):
Have you ever studied music* (outside of general music class) (Y or N):
If yes, how many years have you/did you study music:
Do you still study music in the present day (Y or N):
Do you (circle as many as apply): Sing Play an instrument
At what age did you start studying music:
How many hours per week do you practice your musical skills in the present day:
How many hours per week did you practice your musical skills when you first started:
Do you/did you study with a private teacher (Y or N):
If yes, for how many years:
*In this questionnaire, “studying music” is defined as learning to play an instrument or sing while learning the technique, theory, and performance practices that come along with being a musician
Appendix C: SAT Test from Section One
Answer questions 1-3 and 6-7 based on the passage below
Answer questions 6-9 which do not require a calculator
About the Author
Brianna Donnelly, USA
Brianna Donnelly is pursuing a career in neuroscience. She is beginning this pursuit at Hofstra University and the Zucker School of Medicine’s 4+4 BS/MD program. Through her many years of playing in orchestras she has discovered her passion for the combination of neuroscience and music. She plans on continuing research with both EEG technology and music cognition as she continues her studies.