Does Opera Training Sculpt the Brain to Learn?

December 10, 2020

The Wall Opera Research Project is a multi-year research program supported by a PWIAS Trustees Initiative.  Funding was approved in 2018 for two years ($424,000) with a third year conditional on progress achieved.

Learning how to perform opera is both cognitively and physically demanding.  Prof. Nancy Hermiston, Director of the UBC Opera Program, had often observed that some of the most successful students in the program have had learning disabilities.  Through the training, they appear to have overcome their difficulties, or to have learned compensatory skills.  A multi-disciplinary research team, including Prof. Hermiston; 2020 Wall Scholar Dr. Lara Boyd, Brain Behaviour Lab; Dr. Janet Werker, UBC Language Sciences, Psychology; Dr. Rachel Weber, UBC Language Sciences, and post doctoral fellows, Dr. Anja-Xiaoxing Cui and Dr. Negin Motamed Yeganeh; set out to systematically evaluate and understand the neural bases of that observation. 

Various studies have reported the effects of music training and language training on cognitive functions separately, but conducting research directly on opera students offered the opportunity to study how music and language training interact and affect both cognition and the brain, within the context of opera training. Many cognitive demands are placed on opera singers during performance. Meeting these demands requires both internal and external attention, and memory of verbal, visual, and spatial material.

UBC Opera Ensemble

This project will investigate whether the complement of skills required for opera performance will lead to greater improvements than those seen through any single intervention (or experience) alone, and if so, whether they are of sufficient magnitude to make the difference for students with learning disabilities. To test these hypotheses, researchers will examine memory, learning, and executive functioning, and the underlying brain activity measures, before and after training in opera, in comparison to training in a second language alone, or training in an athletic pursuit alone.

Researchers hope that the project will yield a deeper understanding of the benefits of multi-faceted musical training, and this knowledge may be applied to other situations, e.g. finding more efficient ways to teach, helping dementia patients to improve memory, and treating patients with cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and stroke.

Music Therapy and Brain Health, December 2, 2020
The Wall Opera Project was featured at a Music for the Mind seminar hosted by the BC Brain Wellness Program. Dr. Lara Boyd presents a scientific update on the research project (12:25) and Prof. Hermiston introduces performances by the UBC Opera Ensemble.