A few years ago, I discovered Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music. As a music educator, I was delighted and continued to research the processes of learning and listening to music—particularly as it pertains to young brains!
It has been well established that the acquisition of musical skills aids in the development of discipline, self-control, attention to detail, and overall self-esteem. But what most intrigues me is the actual chemical events that take place in the body. After just over a year of playing an instrument, the physiology of the brain (that is, its shape) has changed in a complex process called myelination. The myelin, or white matter of the brain, is responsible for the rate at which neurons communicate with one another—and screeching notes on a violin (or quacking notes on a clarinet) enhances that structure and aids in bilateral cooperation across the hemispheres. In fact, according to the Journal of Neuroscience, there is evidence that musicians experience “increased numbers of synapses” (Rosenkranz 5204) in the part of their brains responsible for motor control.
One 2007 article from Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience lauded another advantage of musical education: an increase in pitch sensitivity and linguistic abilities. While it follows that attention to music would affect attention to sound in general, did you know that a study by the University of Marseilles determined that musicians use more of their brains when interpreting speech? (Besson 401) Moreover, musical training enhances children’s ability to read and learn foreign languages, perhaps because the music is a language in its own right, complete with cadence, symbols, and syntax. Musical children are also more adept at identifying emotions in others though tonal cues, even by the age of six. (Magne 200)
In the midst of this information, the piano in particular catches my eye—and not just because I’ve spent over two decades learning it by heart. In my opinion, the piano is the ultimate musical playground, visually accessible and systematic even for the novice. Pianists’ brains have to go the extra mile due to right- and left-hand interplay and the equal participation required across the board. In fact, the sulcus (or fold between the frontal and parietal lobes which determines hand dominance) becomes symmetrical on both sides of the brain: though pianists are “born right- or left-handed, their brains barely registered it… Pianists, then, tend to integrate all of the brain’s information into more efficient decision making processes.” (Sloan) Again, practice means the shape of the brain—thus, its basic functions—are changing and becoming more effective through significant neurological integration.
Ultimately, the benefits of music reach beyond musical instruction itself. Although the Mozart effect has been largely disproven, we now know that music can even effect changes on the cellular level, adjusting ratios of cortisol, testosterone, and estrogen; aiding with memory recovery in patients of neurodegenerative diseases; and perhaps even prompting neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons). (Fukui and Toyoshima 766) And that’s not all: studies conducted with electromyographs (machines that record electrical activity in muscles) indicate increased electrical impulses in the legs and a faster heartbeat when the subject is listening to music. In layman’s terms, we cannot help but dance.
The question, then, is this: Having established the value of musical exposure, how do you integrate music into your child’s education? The most obvious answer is through music lessons, but they can be cost prohibitive or simply hard to find in your area. Here are several options to consider:
Enroll your child in a local choir. Most choirs will introduce sheet music, pitch recognition, harmonization, and many other valuable facets of music.
Pick up a simple instrument like ukulele or recorder and go wild with youtube tutorials! “Teach Yourself” guides are easy to follow and available on amazon.
Practice analytical listening with your child. From Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, there are hundreds of ballets, operas, concertos, and the like to hold their attention. Don’t forget to ask engaging questions: How does this make you feel? What instruments do you hear? Can you tap the beat?
Your student doesn’t have to be a musical prodigy, but it’s clear that the presence of music during childhood provides more than mere entertainment. From “Mary had a Little Lamb” to Rachmaninoff, every bit of exposure makes an impact on young minds— and young brains.
Loving my adventure,
Besson, Mireille, et. al. Influence of musical expertise and training on pitch processing in music and language.” Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience 25: 399-410, 2007. Print.
Fukui, Hajime, and Rumiko Toyoshima. “Music Facilitates the Neurogenesis and Repair of Neurons.” Medical Hypotheses 71:765-769, 2008. Print.
Hudziak, James J., et. al. “Cortical Thickness Maturation and Duration of Music Training: Health-Promoting Activities Shape Brain Development.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 53.11:1153-1161, 2014. Print.
Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Magne, Cyrille, et. al. “Musician Children Detect Pitch Violations in Both Music and Language Better than Nonmusician Children: Behavioral and Electrophysiological Approaches.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 18.2:199-211, 2006. Print.
Rosenkranz et al. Differential modulation of motor cortical plasticity and excitability in early and late phases of human motor learning.” Journal of Neuroscience 27:5200-5206, 2007. Print.
Sloan, Jordan Taylor. “Science Shows How Piano Players’ Brains are Actually Different From Everybody Elses’.” Mic Network. New York: 2014. Web.
Starr, Anthony. Music and the Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.