Music And Your Brain
How learning an instrument is the greatest brain workout of all
As instrumental teachers and ensemble leaders we see how learning a musical instrument transforms students. Little by little, in rehearsal and in performance, we observe the slow, steady and positive development of each student’s brain function. We know what it looks like, but if asked by a parent or school leader, could you explain why? Dr. Anita Collins looks at the research that tells us what is really happening inside our students’ heads.
Watching the brain light up
That fact is, as teachers, we only see this brain developmental process from the outside and until now we have had no access to the extraordinary things that are going on inside our students’ brains. However, in the last 20 years, an enormous amount of research has been done on the brain activity and development of musically trained adults and children. As described by one neuroscientist at the beginning of this research, when a person is listening to music it looks like fireworks inside the brain. Imagine their surprise when they observed the brain activity when a person was playing an instrument — those fireworks became a jubilee.
Why is this so? And is it the same or different as other activities that children undertake? The answer is that learning a musical instrument uses a huge number of parts and networks in the brain at the same time, and at this time researchers have been unable to find any other activity that works the brain in quite the same way. Interestingly, this workout results in the improvement of every child’s cognitive capacity, meaning they can learn better, faster and with greater independence.
What does this disciplined brain workout do for the growing brains of our students? The list is long but here is a taster — learning a musical instrument improves: language learning; literacy and reading skills; working memory; phonemic awareness; complex spatial skills; impulse control; auditory processing that protects our brain from aging; comprehension skills; and the list could go on and on.
Learning music is a full brain workout
What we now know is that learning a musical instrument and foundation music education skills like clapping in time, singing in tune and moving to music, are some of the most complex cognitive activities the brain can undertake. They involve the auditory, motor and visual cortices communicating at an astonishingly fast rate — while the cognitive, reward and sensory networks are also sharing information simultaneously1. On top of this the perception, emotion and cognition networks are also making personal meaning from all the logical information the brain is processing. After doing something so complex, our brain looks at other tasks like reading, problem solving and conceptualisation and says: “Well this is easy in comparison to music learning!”
The list of skills and abilities that music learning develops is still very long, but it has started to be sorted under three main areas: language development, executive skills and social skills development2. Just to give you an idea of how this happens here is a crash course in music and the brain.
How learning music improves brain development
The parts of the brain that learn music and learn language are overlapping, which means we hear music as language when we are babies, and we use that understanding to then learn how to decode language and speak it. This is why musically trained children tend to acquire language quicker, learn how to read earlier, and develop comprehension skills earlier. This is the very foundation of all learning at school, the ability to use language.
The act of learning music requires children to use many different parts of their brains at once. One of the areas that get a great workout is the prefrontal cortex, where our executive functions live3. This is the area where we very slowly, through our entire school career, learn how to manage ourselves. Music learning requires the use of that system, just a little bit, every single time we pick up an instrument and do a musical activity. It is the slow, permanent and effective development of the most complex part of our brains.
Playing music in a group, whether that is keeping a beat or playing a symphony, requires subtle, non-verbal social skills4. These are the manners and explicit behaviours we work so hard to teach our children, whether as parents or teachers. These are the subtle, deeply human social skills that employers seek when they interview someone. These serve musically trained children well into adulthood as they develop solid relationships, manage their wellbeing and are empathic and compassionate towards others.
What kind of music education makes a change in the brain?
This is the big question for music educators, and we now have enough research to tell us the specific educational elements that impact positively on brain development:5
- Learning a complex musical instrument — such as violin, clarinet, percussion or trumpet
- Learning an instrument for two to seven years — to ensure a permanent and positive development of the brain
- Using listening, singing and moving to learn your instrument — as my first band conductor would say “if you can sing it you can play it”
- Reading musical notation — to develop the same sound to symbol system that we use to read words on a page
- Learning from an expert — as either an individual or in small group lesson
- Learning in an ensemble setting — to develop social and executive function skills to their highest level
- Regular performances — to develop inhibition control, managing nerves and adapting to new environments
How can you learn more?
Brain science is probably not your forte, but these neuroscientists and psychologists are researching the work that we do every day. Their work can help us be better educators and better advocates for our work, but first we need to get our heads around this tricky research.
With this in mind the Bigger Better Brains education program will be launched in November this year. It includes educational materials written for music educators by music educators, and will provide a huge bag of information and tools to help you understand what is happening in your students’ brains as you teach them.
1. Altenmüller, E., & Furuya, S. (2017). Apollos Gift and Curse: Making Music as a model for Adaptive and Maladaptive Plasticity. e-Neuroforum, 23(2), 57-75.
2. Hallam, S. (2010). The power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Journal of Music Education, 28(3), 269-289.
3. Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E. G., Cepeda, N. J., & Chau, T. (2011). Short-term music training enhances verbal intelligence and executive function. Psychological science, 22(11), 1425-1433.
4. Corrigall, K. A., Schellenberg, E. G., & Misura, N. M. (2013). Music training, cognition, and personality. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 222.
5. Collins, A. (2014). Music education and the brain: What does it take to make a change?. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 32(2), 4-10.
WORDS BY: Dr. Anita Collins
Dr Anita Collins is an award-winning educator and researcher in music education and brain development. She has interviewed over 100 neuromusical researchers in Canada, USA, Scandinavia and Europe, she is a TEDx speaker and TED-Ed writer and is known for her role as onscreen expert in the ABC’s successful documentary Don’t Stop the Music.