USC, LA Philharmonic team up to examine music's effect on the brain

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic at home at Disney Hall.
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic at home at Disney Hall. Mathew Imaging/LA Philharmonic

A five-year study involving USC and the LA Philharmonic will examine what effect intense, musical training has on a child's brain.

Researchers with the USC Brain and Creativity Institute will begin working with children between the ages of 6 and 7, when they have no musical training, up to the ages of 11 and 12. Their results will then be compared against children with no music training at all.

Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, said people across the world are passionate about music. But researchers want to know exactly what it does to the brain.

"Is it, for example, something that adds to the development, that increases the ability of children to be more socially well-tuned?" said Damasio. "Does it make them more intelligent? Does it make them more sensitive to others? All of those are questions that can be answered in a study such as this."

The young music students in the study are part of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at the Heart of Los Angeles (YOLA at HOLA) program, a collaboration between the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the nonprofit organization Heart of Los Angeles. The children in the program are from underprivileged neighborhoods in Los Angeles and are provided free instruments and music training five days a week.

The program also uses "El Sistema," a method of intense, free music training that was born in Venezuela and is associated with L.A. Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel.

Dr. Assal Habibi, a USC researcher who is working with the children, said this method of training is what sets this study apart from other research that has examined the link between music and the brain. She describes the training as "intense, systematic, and ensemble."

"This has been very important for us because it will really give us an opportunity to look at the social development of children as they work together in these ensembles during their training," said Habibi.

Habibi said another unique aspect of this study is that it will examine the role that music has in a child's emotional and social development. The children will undergo psychological tests and non-invasive brain scans to measure the effect of the music education.

The researchers hope that if the results turn out to be positive, the "El Sistema" method of training could become more widely used in other parts of the country and the world.

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