Music is math. A human-derived merging of emotion and logic.

Even listening to music is a formulaic process. By understanding the temporal structure, you can listen to music over time and make predictions about what will come next based on what you already heard. And you needn’t even have knowledge of musical scales. In a nutshell, it is pattern prediction. Your brain will do it for you.

Pattern prediction is a cornerstone of intelligence. The more honed this skill is, the better you can apply it to a bevy of situations you may be faced with in the world. Given this, it stands to reason that meaningful engagement with music can promote learning. Indeed, it is well-known that musical exposure is strongly correlated to intelligence. For example, musicians tend to be better at learning new languages and have enhanced mathematical skills. The scientific explanation for this is based on the concept of domain transfer – how specific experiences can influence the development of other, seemingly unrelated, skills on a neurological level.

The effect of music reaches far beyond the music itself.

In March of this year, work from University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) showed direct evidence, through brain imaging techniques, of domain transfer effects due to musical training in babies only 9-months of age (Zhao and Kuhl, 2016).

In this study, researchers designed two different educational baby boot camps and enlisted 39 babies. In the test group, babies were taught a triple meter waltz by listening, bouncing and tapping out the beat. In a control group, babies engaged in play that focused on coordinated movement. The researchers were careful to incorporate well known elements of learning, such as social interaction and active involvement, into both curricula.

The effect they measured was a change in brain activity following disruptions to the temporal structure of music and speech. Similar to how the brain uses temporal information in music to make predictions, the brain uses the temporal structure of speech for linguistic processing. Like most everything in the brain, music and speech have their own domains. If babies that received the musical intervention responded better to violations in speech, then this would be due to cross-domain effects.

In particular, researchers focused on activity in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in decoding and recognizing patterns. Babies that had gone to the musical boot camp showed stronger responses in the prefrontal cortex to temporal violations of both the music and speech. These findings show not only that musical intervention enhanced the babies’ abilities to predict patterns, but that this enhancement had a transfer effect to the language domain of the brain. And this occurred months before these babies will likely utter their first words.

“Infants experience a complex world in which sounds, lights, and sensations vary constantly,” says Kuhl, co-author of this paper. “The baby’s job is to recognize the patterns of activity and predict what’s going to happen next. Pattern perception is an important cognitive skill, and improving that ability early may have long-lasting effects on learning.”

Much attention has been given to the use of early music intervention to shape our babies into the next Mozart or Beethoven. But what about the great scientists and engineers, the next Da Vinci or Einstein?

This work suggests that musical interventions in early life, during a time of heightened brain plasticity, can generate cross-domain enhancements that may promote learning. Perhaps our babies are only a few notes away from genius.



Zhao, T.C., and Kuhl, P.K. (2016). Musical intervention enhances infants’ neural processing of temporal structure in music and speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 5212-5217.