The screeches of novice violinists are catching the attention of a group of San Diego brain and development scientists.

A new study launched this spring aims to explore what physically changes in the brains of 15 kids learning music for the first time, and whether that helps the students learn better in other areas, over five years.

Until a few decades ago, consensus held that our brains were not capable of changing much after a critical period in childhood. Now scientists know human brains change throughout life. They have a name — brain plasticity — to describe how experiences can change structures within the brain or the entire brain itself.

Finding out what experiences do what in the brain could upend some long-held education traditions. A kid struggling in math could be enrolled in music to strengthen the weak spots in her brain, rather than sit through times tables sessions after school.

This spring, kids between 5 and 10 years old are sliding into brain-scan chambers at UC San Diego and concentrating for a few hours on reading, mathematical and musical exercises. They’ve just begun taking music classes this school year, and as they advance, they’ll go back for re-testing.

Questioning music’s impact on brainpower is not new. Plato integrated music in his curriculum and was interested in its effects on the mind. But this pilot study by neuroscience and human development scholars at UCSD and the nearby Neurosciences Institute features a few novel characteristics.

Existing research has shown cognitive and academic boosts that scientists attribute to music lessons. But it’s rare to find resources to do the kind of long-term tracking for music and brain development that this study proposes.

The scientists contrast what they find inside the budding musicians’ heads with the brains of kids not taking the classes. Researchers usually include people in any study who aren’t doing the activity they’re trying to measure. But in this case, the study includes an active control group, too. It’s a group of kids who are studying karate. They want to compare what brain impact comes from another disciplined practice.

About 25 miles south of the researchers’ La Jolla campuses, the scientists found an ideal pool of kids to study: A growing after-school music program in Chula Vista.

The San Diego Youth Symphony’s Community Opus Project takes after a beloved Venezuelan social-change and music program that funnels young students through intensive classical music training in hopes of helping them escape poverty.

The program, El Sistema, claims L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel among its progeny.

‘Is There More Than We Already Know?’

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Third- and fourth-graders squeeze together in a Chula Vista classroom for a run-through of “Orpheus and the Underworld” at a weeklong intensive camp in March for the Community Opus Project afterschool music program.

Even Dudamel had to start somewhere. One afternoon the week before Spring Break, a Chula Vista classroom crammed with 8-year-olds naturally burst with noise, some of it musical.

A few dozen young violinists, violists, cellists and a couple of weary-looking bassists wrung sound from their instruments, looking at sheet music for “Orpheus in the Underworld” in front of them.

Then, these third-graders — just months into their musical trajectories — squeezed together as their fourth-grade forerunners trickled in from down the hall. Two conductors helped them begin Orpheus’ “Infernal Galop,” a tune you may more readily associate with the can-can dance.

A young bassist exclaimed, “I couldn’t even hear myself!”

“I know! That’s what happens when you get a big orchestra,” her teacher, Emmanuel Soto, replied.

Then, through the chaos, the two grades seemed to realize what was happening. The younger kids’ bass line accompaniment sounded different now that it was underneath the melody, played by the ones who’d been at it a year longer. They suddenly had something else besides themselves to listen for.

The feeling of contributing to something bigger might keep some of the kids playing for years — with or without scientific proof. But the research team wants to peer inside their brains to see.

For decades, people have carried a strong hunch that music isn’t just a great skill to have, but it actually makes the brain better. Principals in schools that host the after-school classes report to the Youth Symphony’s chief, Dalouge Smith, that they’re seeing less of the usual troublemakers. But even evidence of kids faring better on tests can be tricky to extrapolate.

Smith wants to see if kids’ brains are physically changing for the better due to their music classes. It doesn’t diminish his belief in the anecdotes that music is life-changing, he said, but the study’s potential fascinates him

“All of these things are still true, as they’ve always been true as long as people have been playing music — for millennia,” Smith said. “It is essentially asking the question: Is there more than we already know?”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego Youth Symphony CEO Dalouge Smith seeks empirical data to back up the anecdotal academic and social benefits he’s seen in the Opus Project.

‘We’re Not Trying to Prove That Music Is Great’

The thought compelled then-student Ani Patel to abandon his study of ants in Australia: Do humans have a “special neurobiological capacity” for music, like we do for learning language and grammar? Music neuroscience wasn’t yet a recognized field of study when Patel defended his thesis in the mid-1990s.

Now Patel continues to study questions like these as a senior fellow at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla. With fellow researcher John Iversen, the two have explored intersections of how the brain perceives the beat and music, and whether it’s a particularly human ability. (A particularly intriguing turn led them to studying Snowball, a dancing cockatoo, as the scientists explored whether the ability to dance or follow a beat is distinctly a human capability.)

File photo by Sam Hodgson
John Iversen and Ani Patel, biologists at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, study how music affects the brain.

This study will look at the development of a brain over years when its owner is studying music for the first time.

One of the imaging tests will measure the fiber network between different components of the brain. As the brain matures, those connections get more efficient and streamlined. The team is using relatively new technology that measures just how streamlined those fiber tracks are.

Think of the difference between cooked and raw spaghetti. The uncooked noodles, or the honed brain connections, can line up in one, efficient direction. The scientists wonder: Does music accelerate that streamlining process? They’re not sure yet what will show up in the scans, but they’ll be watching for which fiber tracks appear to be streamlining over time by music or karate study.

And with in-depth testing for kids’ language, math and reading development, and different components of IQ, the researchers hope teachers could individually target student needs. Iversen suggested that might be “a more engaging, under-the-radar way than by sending someone to vocabulary tutoring, math tutoring.”

The other component of the study, karate, involves individual practice and progress but also the kind of group setting and affirmation that the music classes center around. And the kids get whatever benefit extra adult attention and coaching gives them.

Catching these kids as they begin music and karate will give the team a snapshot of their brains to use as a baseline. And the scientists will likely be more able to isolate which effects happened from music.

Imagine a study that compares people who are longtime musicians to people who’ve never touched an instrument. You may find signs that the musicians had higher intelligence, but you wouldn’t be able to go back and see how the two subjects’ brains compared before.

Iversen said that kind of study sparks a nature-versus-nurture debate in the field; without comparing the brains at the start, you wouldn’t know if the intelligence increase could come with practice or whether the musicians started with higher cognition.

“It’s sort of reasonable to assume that’s because they play music, but you can’t actually prove it,” Iversen said.

Still, this scientific inquiry has to remain agnostic. “We’re not trying to prove that music is great,” Iversen said. “We just pitch it like we have to look. We don’t know what the answer will be.”

‘You Were So Close’

On a small table at UC San Diego’s Center for Human Development one morning last month, the center’s research manager, Connor McCabe, dumped out a box of red and white blocks. Each had solid red sides, white sides and half-red, half-white sides.

I was there to see just what kind of tests these kids go through. Some are game-like computer programs. Another involved hearing a computerized voice read short letter combinations and then I had to put the word together, like “mmm – a – th- ih – mmm – a- t – ih -ck- s.” (“Mathematics.”)

McCabe held up a book with pictures of red and white patterns. I attempted to move the blocks around to resemble the diamonds and abstract geometric shapes.

I arranged a couple fairly quickly. But then McCabe gave me more blocks and skipped to the end of the test, the hardest one. I caught this excruciating little exercise on tape.

“So,” I began, confidently. I whistled, moving blocks around.

“Oh, and then I have to use these,” I muttered. I’d left a couple out. “Sooo. How do I do that?”

I chuckled nervously. “That is the question, isn’t it? Hmmm.”

Clink. Clink. Clink. I moved the blocks indecisively.

“So now what do I do with this one? All right. OK. Is that it?”

McCabe whispered. “I actually don’t think so.”

“Oh no, because these need to be like this.” Clink. Clink.

McCabe stepped in, since I wasn’t an official test subject. He said the first thing I’d done was the key.

I couldn’t remember what that was. I moved the first blocks I’d touched, but I still couldn’t get it. “That’s not right. This guy needs to go … Hmm. Let’s see. I think I’m just repeating the same problem.”

Iversen and McCabe showed me where I was not seeing the shape correctly. There are a few different ways to make some of the red triangles point outward at the top of the shape, but only one way to end up with a white square in the middle. My eyes had completely missed the inside square.

“I’ll be sure to report the difficulty of the block test!” I pledged.

But McCabe had more humble pie to serve. “Some kids, I don’t know how they did it but, we’ve had kids that have done this one in like 15 seconds,” he said.

Iversen stepped in. “You were so close, actually.” Some consolation, I guess.

This is one of the dozens of measures the scientists will track to see what impact music or karate has on cognition. All of the tests have different rationales. This block test, McCabe said, has proven an indicator for whether a kid not only shows initial math skills, but also increased ability to get better at math over time.

Next came beat and melody tests developed by Iversen and Patel. I had to tap along with the beat demonstrated by a cartoon rabbit named Bleepo. (My astute, if possibly rhythm-less, friend Claire Trageser went through some similar tests a couple of years ago.)

They aim to study just how brains respond to sound, finding where the beat lies in particular music and following a melody. But what’s different in this application is that Iversen and Patel have previously used the test to map what brain activity is happening. They haven’t tracked the same brain’s response over time, Iversen said.

‘Is It Going to Happen?’

One afternoon in April, McCabe swiped a security card and swung open the door to a sterile room with brightly colored chemical tanks flanking one wall and a doorway leading to a giant white medical imaging machine. Kids come to this UCSD lab for their brain scans for this program and the center’s larger study of kids’ brain development.

The team offers a few incentives. Kids who agree to lie still in the MRI machine and watch a movie they bring from home — while the tube grunts, beeps and peers inside their heads — get to keep a picture of their brains. Parents are paid about $20 an hour for their time. Because of research privacy rules, the team didn’t allow us to interview kids undergoing the tests.

Though about 10 of the music kids have signed up and begun the testing, it’s been more challenging to wrangle kids to start the study than the team expected. But they’ve got a compelling message: Exploring these questions could mean the music program, beloved in Chula Vista, can expand further.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

At the end of a long day at Opus’ camp in March, parents of the nearly 200 kids arrived for a community potluck. Their hands now free of their violins, kids dove into pyramids of pizza boxes. The scene was classic El Sistema: Music builds community, the program posits.

Smith stood off to the side as bow-tied Youth Symphony kids from Balboa Park showed up to give a concert to their novice compatriots. Perhaps he’s even converting himself: Smith, a lifelong drama kid before taking the Youth Symphony’s helm, took his first music lesson this year, on a French horn his wife bought him for a birthday present.

He said watching these intersections fuels long workdays for the music teachers and staff.

“You don’t do it because the spreadsheet turned out correctly,” he said. “You do it because of the human manifestation that comes through the music. And there’s an element of dramatic tension. Is it going to happen? Are they going to do it?”

I’m Kelly Bennett, Voice of San Diego reporter. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

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

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