Does learning music or karate boost your language skills or help you pay closer attention? What actually physically happens to the brain’s structure over the first few years you learn to play an instrument?

A slew of popular books and CDs focus on ways humans can allegedly increase their brainpower by listening to certain music. Studies have shown encouraging results for music therapy helping victims of strokes and other mental impairments.

But a group of scientific heavy-hitters are after even more comprehensive data that would match both brain imaging — what physically changes in our brains — with cognitive and behavioral testing — what effects those changes would have.

They’re taking kids who are learning to play instruments for the first time in Chula Vista after-school programs and following them over the course of five years.

Then they’ll compare that group’s results to kids who are learning karate or other martial arts for the first time. Could it be that whatever impact music has, karate or another disciplined practice has the same brain impact? And then they’ll compare to yet another group of kids the same age who aren’t in either program.

The work of science demands researchers approach the outcome with open minds. But the team knows that if they discover new evidence that music or martial arts or both have a positive influence on cognitive development, the findings could provide greater negotiating power when schools cut arts teaching.

The project takes advantage of the fact that we have so many leading researchers and thinkers living and working in the same county. Three San Diego institutions bring their expertise to the study:

Behavioral and brain development in kids: The specialty of UC San Diego’s Center for Human Development, where researchers have been doing highly regarded research for a dozen years.

The relationship between music and the brain: That’s what Aniruddh Patel and John Iversen study at the Neurosciences Institute. They’ve developed special questions and tests to add to the process the kids will go through at the UCSD center.

Teaching kids music for the first time: Here’s where the San Diego Youth Symphony comes in — its Community Opus Project trains hundreds of kids in Chula Vista in after-school string and orchestra programs. The program is modeled after El Sistema in Venezuela, which produced Gustavo Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic’s conductor and poster child for the program’s success.

The team is announcing today it’s looking for kids between the ages of 5 and 10 who’ve just recently started (like within 6 months) or are about to start taking weekly music or martial arts lessons, as well as kids who are doing neither. They’ll be studying the same kids over five years to see how the brain changes with continued instruction. The karate study is called ACTION and the music one is called SIMPHONY — find more info on the UCSD center’s website.

The research includes both taking images of the brain to understand how the training affects its physical structure, and testing the participants’ cognitive abilities through simple tests and computerized tasks.

Participating families get a color picture of their brains and about $100 compensation.

I’ve been diving into the details of this project and am working on an in-depth story about it to share with you soon. Stay tuned.

And in the meantime, let me know: What do you think — or hope — the scientists will find? If you or your kids play an instrument, have you noticed an increase in your language skills or attention span since picking it up? Same thing if you practice martial arts. I’d love to hear your perspective — leave us a comment below.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter on arts, ideas and nonprofits for VOSD. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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