Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Developing the musical brain

I’ve been “reading” the great new book by Daniel Levitin called This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. The book examines scientific observations about how music affects our brains and vice versa. It’s especially fascinating for music teachers.

I recommend it very highly, though not the way I’m trying to “read” it, which is by listening to it. My new mp3 player came with a free month of so I chose this book, but I found it pretty hard to follow a nonfiction book read out loud. No chance to flip back a few pages and reread a few key points. (And don’t dare daydream or you miss a page!)

I’d like to mention here just a few interesting points raised in the book–about practicing, ear training, and the effect of music lessons on brain development. I hope to refer again to this book in some future blog posts as well.


Levitin describes an experiment where researchers tried to define “talent.”  They examined music students who were regarded as most talented, and invariably found that those students who were the best musicians had practiced significantly more than the others. “Talent” seems to be a word people apply retrospectively to someone who has accomplished something in music already.

Some argue that practice is everything. Apparently everyone who has been considered world-class in their field of expertise, whether music, writing, chess, math, crime–any expertise–was found to have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice in that field of expertise. Levitin points this out as part of a debate about how patterns are developed in neural pathways, but also discusses the impact of caring and enjoying an activity on brain chemistry and on the success of building good physical and artistic memory.

Ear training

Levitin points out that studies of perfect and relative pitch have always involved musicians, since no one else is expected to know the names of the notes. But new studies have reached out to nonmusicians, with interesting results.

Nonmusicians were given tuning forks, and each was asked to listen to one pitch several times a day. At the end of a week, everyone was able to pick out their pitch from among several being played, and by giving each pitch a nontechnical name, such as “Fred”, the average person was able to name his or her pitch when hearing it.

In another experiment, average people were asked to sing into a tape recorder their memory of a popular song. The songs selected were limited to those recorded by a single famous band, so the researchers knew that the songs had been heard a lot but only in one key and in one version. They found that people sang the songs in the same key as the original, with the same tempo, and even many of the vocal inflections of the recording.

Music Lessons

One point of obvious interest to music teachers is that scientists have found that even a small exposure to music lessons creates enhanced neural circuits for music processing. It helps people listen better, and discern form and structure.

I particularly found it interesting that studying music develops a section of the brain that is related to but not identical to the speech areas. This area of the brain is apparently also used in such activities as understanding sign language. It has to do with our perception of time and how we organize patterns that we perceive in relation to time–a communications skill not developed by computers or academic homework.

The book makes clear that no one area of the brain is involved exclusively in music–it isn’t a left or right brain activity, but a whole-brain activity. I look forward to “reading” more of the book; in fact, I’m thinking of just buying the physical book anyway, to hold and read! Hopefully I’ll have more info for you soon.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]


  1. Neil Santos

    I switched from teaching in a store to teaching out of my house and I agree with all the things that were brought up in this article.

    I now rent a good size office in a area with alot of stores and services near it. It has a waiting room but half the time the parents will run errands during the lesson time. One advantage to teaching in an office is you get the ride home to switch gears into relax mode.

  2. Penny

    I totally agree with this article. Everyone is “musical” in a sense that they know what tone is, rhythm which is also related in poetry and reading or movement which also has rhythm in it. All that is required of the individual is to develop these aspects by practising and having an interest in their inner music ear; our bodies are in tune with music all around us, every day, whether it’s the birds singing, cars engines have a rhythm, sounds in the night which are from natural sources…..we just have to tune in to them!

  3. Chad

    I have read the book as well-the first time for pleasure, the second and third with a highlighter! I’ve found excellent conversation topics to share with parents and students alike.

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