Moral development, executive functioning, peak experiences and brain patterns in professional and amateur classical musicians: Interpreted in light of a Unified Theory of Performance

Authors: Frederick Travis, Harald S Harung, Yvonne Lagrosen
Publication:  Consciousness and Cognition
Publication volume & date:  in press
DOI:  10.1016/j.concog.2011.03.020
Abridged Abstract: This study compared professional and amateur classical musicians matched for age, gender, and education on reaction times during the Stroop color-word test, brainwaves during an auditory ERP task and during paired reaction-time tasks, responses on the Gibbs Sociomoral Reflection questionnaire, and self-reported frequencies of peak experiences.

In this study, the authors explore how musical training affects scores on a variety of cognitive tests, including a Sociomoral Reflecton survey, a peak experience survey, the Stroop test, and a brain integration test. The researchers conclude that “In these data, playing classical music seemed to foster higher levels of mind-brain development.”

What’s really fascinating, though, is the review of pervious research at the beginning of the article, and the idea that the results can be evaluated in terms of a “Unified Theory of Performance.” Perhaps these types of results can be used as ammunition in the battle to keep music curriculums in schools. Particularly useful may be the scores achieved on the brain integration test. In this test, high and low functioning musicians were compared against similar groups of athletes and business managers. In evaluating the results, the researchers noted “the anomaly is between the control groups. The control athletes and the control managers had significantly lower scores on the Brain Integration Scale than the high functioning groups. In contrast, the amateur musicians had higher scores than the athlete and manager control groups, and a similar score as the professional musicians.”

What a wonderful example of how even amateur-level musicians experience cognitive gains that their non-musician counterparts do not. Although this test may not be conclusive by itself, it certainly lends credence to the argument for the importance of music education. Hopefully further tests will corroborate these results.

And, the whole article is just fascinating in its own right. In particular, I found the peak experience survey results compelling. I didn’t expect to see such a significant difference between the two groups. It would be interesting to take the authors’ suggestion and repeat this test with groups of improvising musicians and see how the results compare.


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