Effect of music on cognitive function

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Taylor Bredberg is an ardent fan of the indie band Grizzly Bear and the TV series “Lost,” an amateur filmmaker and a doodler of figures that bring to mind Tim Burton’s kinetic grostesques.

But if those interests make him a pretty normal teenager, Bredberg’s eight-year relationship with the piano may have made him a little more unusual: He is a kid with the attention span of an anesthesiologist, the persistence and discipline of an Olympic athlete and the emotional range of an artist.

“Piano has shaped me, yeah,” says Bredberg, who began taking lessons after his family discovered him, at 7, plinking out on his own the pieces his older sister was learning in lessons. “In terms of discipline and creativity, I’d have been a much different person if I hadn’t played piano.”

Once a week, Bredberg studies the instrument at the elite Colburn School for Performing Arts in Los Angeles. And he practices for several hours a day, favoring pieces by the Russian composers who are his favorites: Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. When he feels more delicate, he favors Debussy.

As a freshman, Bredberg has been learning to speak Russian as well, and he finds Algebra 2 a cinch. “It’s always been pretty understandable to me. It’s very logical,” he says. He recognizes the challenge of learning math as one that requires the same methodical patience it takes to learn Prokofiev’s 3rd Sonata in A minor, his current project: “I’ve just gotten used to repeating one phrase until I can play it at the proper speed, and well, and musically,” he says. “I guess that can contribute to not getting frustrated after having to repeat so many [math] problems.”

Kids like Taylor Bredberg underscore a key problem that researchers have in understanding the link between music-making and cognitive performance. Bredberg hails from the kind of educated family in which music instruction is more common to begin with — an environmental advantage that may account for his particular mental strengths. To truly learn what music-making can do for academic skills, researchers say they must pluck kids from a wider range of family environments and offer them music lessons, rather than just study kids whose families have sought out musical instruction for them. That’s the only way they will be able to disentangle the effects of early environment from those of musical instruction, they say.