1 November 2022

Three ways playing a musical instrument affects the brain

By Francesco Sani

Listening to music has a profound effect on humans, as widely seen through the field of music therapy, but also in the use of music to enhance focus and productivity. Neuroscience applied to music is still relatively new and there are a lot of ‘grey’ areas, but here are some of the studies demonstrating music’s effect on the brain:

1. Music enhances memory and reading skills

Language learning and music learning are strongly connected because the language and music neural networks overlap. Children who are musically trained are generally better at learning languages, not just their phonetics but also the musical part of sounds that conveys emotion and meaning. Furthermore, they carry this ‘brain signature’ into their adult lives, meaning that early intervention (i.e. sufficiently prolonged and rigorous musical training in childhood) is a key component for reaping the full benefits of music education and learning a musical instrument.

Music causes extensive activation of the brain, promoting the repair of neural systems. The addition of music listening to rehabilitation enhances the regulation or motor functions in Parkinson’s and stroke patients, accelerates the recovery of speech disorder and cognitive injuries after a stroke, and decreases the behavioural disorders of dementia patients. Music enhances the ability to concentrate and decreases mental confusion.” (Sihvonen A J, 2014)

The “Mozart effect” studies which found positive effects on volunteers, in controlled conditions, have shown that what really caused an improved visual-spatial reasoning after the experiment was not so much whether they listened to ten-plus minutes of Mozart but whether the music they were given to listen to did (or did not) closely match their own musical preferences (see Schellenberg and Hallam, 2005; Nantais and Schellenberg, 1999).

2. Music creates better brain plasticity

The active brain emits electrical signals that can be monitored and used to map its responses to actions/interactions. Measuring this has been an invaluable tool for neuroscientists to understand how the brain is affected by musical sounds, including speech/language, and how people’s brains can change (neuroplasticity) if they are exposed to music and musical training from a young age.

Dr Anita Collins, founder of Bigger Better Brains, tells us how “musically trained people have been found to have a much larger corpus collosum which means messages can get around the brain faster and through more diverse routes. The other three parts of the brain; auditory (ears), visual (eyes) and motor (body) are talking to each other constantly as a child learns music.

The corpus collosum is a very important part of the brain; it acts as a bridge between the two halves (hemispheres), and the experience of ‘split brain’ patients whose corpus collosum had to be surgically cut shows some of the cognitive challenges they experience.

Professor Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University, comes to similar conclusions about the power of music learning. In a 2020 American Scientist article, she and co-author Travis White-Schwoch wrote:

We think that some of the most profound neurodevelopmental benefits of music manifest in ways that are difficult to quantify in robust research studies, leading us to the intangible argument, which proposes that the deepest benefits of music education are challenging to reduce to a set of data points and parameters. Such benefits include the focus and discipline that come from years of regular practice, the social engagement and satisfaction that grow when making music in an ensemble, the friendship that results from staying twice a week after school for a rehearsal, and the confidence that develops from performing alone on a stage.”

The benefits of musical education

Music enhances more than the auditory brain but also a whole set of social skills. Dr Anita Collins stresses the importance of music education particularly through the learning of an instrument. She clarifies that the motor cortex in our brain is not activated by singing or listening to music, for that we need to use motor skills on an instrument external to our body. The perfect combination would be both singing and movement, which provides a fuller scale of enhanced effects to the learner.

3. Music strengthens bonds with others

She goes on to say that, particularly with children from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have suffered deprivation (physical and/or emotional neglect) and/or abusive environments, language learning and executive functions (i.e. the ability to exercise self-control and empathy, and to organise/priorities tasks) who may be significantly impaired benefit significantly from music learning, particularly playing in an ensemble. This can provide a safe space for those children to explore emotions through music, enhance their social skills, and improve language/academic learning.


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