Musical Training Gives the Brain a Crucial Advantage—Especially at an Early Age, Says New Study

Neurologists looking to understand how perfect pitch affects the brain found an altogether different and inspiring conclusion about music and brain function.

They found that both perfect pitch—the ability to identify a note simply by the sound—and musical training in general led to greater functional connectivity between the regions of the brain.

Perfect pitch is something associated with musical genius, and is a talent possessed by such titans as Mozart, Pavarotti, Tchaikovsky, Jimi Hendrix, and Mariah Carey.

Using state-of-the-art methods of assessing the synchronized activity between brain hemispheres and regions, Simon Leipold and the other researchers found “robust effects of musicianship in inter-and intrahemispheric connectivity in both structural and functional networks.”

The trial consisted of 153 female and male participants; 52 perfect pitch musicians, 51 non-perfect pitch musicians, and 50 non-musicians.

“Crucially, most of the effects were replicable in both musicians with and without absolute pitch when compared to non-musicians,” write the authors of the corresponding paper, who are neurologists at the University of Zurich and at Stanford. “However, we did not find evidence for an effect of [perfect] pitch on intrinsic functional or structural connectivity in our data: The two musician groups showed strikingly similar networks across all analyses.”

They also found that musical training at a young age produces stronger structural connections—as in, connections that help distinct areas of the brain work together to perform complex cognitive tasks—which has important implications outside of musical education.

Leipold and the team have unknowingly produced a very strong case for musical education in schools, as their finding of structural connections is nothing trivial. Rather, it’s one of the most important metrics of brain health and development.

The paper is a great case of unexpected discoveries in science: how setting up studies to examine one hypothesized effect can sometimes lead to the discovery of a totally different one, with widely different implications.