Who has not heard a teenager, a parent or adult beginner, or an administrator or politician wonder out loud what the point of learning music is, for those who are not planning on turning pro?
Apart from the obvious personal benefit from enjoyment, social connection, and artistic expression, there is scientific research about learning music that is well worth keeping in mind and passing along to others — especially as a music teacher. I emailed my son a link to a great little animated video from TED-Ed-Lessons, which presents an excellent summary of how learning to play music helps develop higher brain function. It was written by Anita Collins, who has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Music Education. We’ll discuss this more, below.
But first, it’s worth noting that only in the last couple of months, MIT researchers have published findings that certain neurons in our brains are tuned in specifically to processing the sound of music, suggesting that music may have played an important role in the evolution of the human nervous system. Taken together with the finding of musical instruments from as far back as 70,000 years ago, it’s clear that music is essential to human society.
The short video linked above might be worth making available to your students and their parents. It discusses neuroscientific research from the past few decades, which has revealed connections between activities and brain activity in real time. Scientists found that each activity seems to have a corresponding location of the brain, where those efforts are processed.
Listening to music, however, appears to fire up multiple areas across the brain simultaneously, and even more brain activity among those who actually play music. The process of playing music results in intricate, complex, and incredibly fast signals in all parts of the brain, especially, auditory, motor, and visual centers. Regular musical practice appears to strengthen those brain functions, allowing musicians to apply them to all sorts of activities.
In particular, playing and practicing music increases the volume and activity of the corpus colossum, the bridge between the linguistic and mathematical left side of the brain, and the creative and expressive right side, allowing messages between the two sides to pass through faster and via more diverse routes.
This development ties into higher executive brain function, which involves skills in planning, strategizing, attention to detail, and coordination of both cognitive and emotional information. Learning music has the potential of helping students excel in problem-solving that is needed in all sorts of academic and social settings.
Developing musical skills also enhances memory. Musicians have been found to attach multiple tags to their memories — conceptual, audio, emotional, contextual — so that memories can be more quickly and easily found and connected to other thoughts.
What’s also fascinating is that these benefits seem to be specific to music, and not just any art or other activity.
So the next time someone wonders what the point of learning music is, you might share some of this scientific research with them, before offering them some lessons!
If you’re on Facebook, here is a page that can help you keep up to date on the latest brain research, some of it tied into music.