Music on My Mind: Music’s Effect on the Brain

Apr 14, 2015

Last week when we were reviewing some of the positive benefits that are associated with starting an education in music, I may have glossed over something that, under other circumstances, would probably shock many readers into action. I am specifically referring to the fact that learning to make music has a profound physical effect on the developing brain. In most situations when we are discussing alteration of the physical structure of a human being’s brain it is in the context of substance abuse or mental health, both subjects which carry a negative connotation. However, in the case of music, the fundamental changes that are being made to the brain result in some quite amazing benefits and skills that those who do not partake in music making may have difficulty duplicating. Now, fair warning before we get into the nitty-gritty here: all of the benefits that come from an education in music, be they social, mental, or physical, are part of a two way street. By that I mean any given student will only take away what they put in. Many parents have been tempted to enroll their youngsters in music classes in an attempt to cash in on these benefits, but a child with little interest in learning an instrument, or one who doesn’t actively participate in the class, is probably not benefiting from the classes anyway. Music can be a powerful tool, but it is not for everyone.

But you or your child are truly interested in becoming a musician, so let’s take a look at that brain.

Probably the area of the brain that sees the most change and development with an education in music is the language center. In a recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers’ findings suggested that students with two years of music lessons under their belts didn’t just get better at playing their instruments; playing music also helped improve how the kids’ brains processed language. Breaking down all the science and statistics, it all comes down to pitch, timing, and timbre. The study suggests that leaning music improves your brain’s ability to process these three aspects of sound more efficiently, which in turn makes picking up language easier. As sounds become clearer, the brain can make better sense of them. This translates into limitless potentials outside the music classroom.

What researchers are only just beginning to discover is something Margaret Martin has known for a long time. Martin founded the Harmony Project, where this study was performed, a school music program that teaches music to children in low-income communities. And while the researchers come away with data and statistics, the success of the Harmony Project speaks for itself: since its founding in 2008, 93% of the program’s grade 12 students have graduated high school in four years, and gone on to post-secondary institutions. This is in stark contrast to the 50% drop out rates in the Los Angeles neighbourhoods the program operates in.

Another area of the brain that music has a powerful impact on is your memory centers, and learning processes. Anyone who has ever used a musical mnemonic device knows that adding a little music can make it easier to remember details. Simple little trick like mnemonic devices has been helping students for centuries, but they represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the superhuman feats of memory recall and learning that the right kind of music can unlock. Several studies have shown that music from the baroque period, like Mozart, Handel, or Bach are the key. Specifically music with approximately sixty beats per minute stimulate both the right and left hemispheres of the brain simultaneously. When both hemispheres are working together the brain becomes even more capable of processing information, paying attention, making predictions, and updating events in memory. Several studies have resulted in higher recall rates, and better recall accuracy for subjects exposed to music with 60 beats per minute during the learning phase. The same studies have also shown that new information becomes associated with the music that is played when it is first learned. The researchers found that the subjects’ recall improved even further when the same music was played for both the learning and recall phases.

But memory isn’t the only thing to benefits from Mozart. In a perfect brainstorm of language center development, enhanced memory recall, and learning potentials, esteemed psychologist Dr. George Lozanov has used 60 beats per minute music to teach foreign languages in a fraction the normal time. Using his techniques, many students have learned nearly half the term’s vocabulary in one day. That’s almost 1,000 words and phrases. Taking advantage of the way the brain responds and develops with music, Dr. Lozanov has shown that languages can be learned efficiently within 30 days with the help of music. And it isn’t just the learning; his program’s students boast a 92% retention rate.

There is one other area of the brain that is also affected by an education is music, specifically learning to play an instrument: fine motor control. Playing an instrument requires and teaches at least three basic motor control functions: timing, sequencing, and spacial organization of motor movements, which is just a fancy way of saying hand-eye coordination. Each of these skills are transferable to other facets of life. The hands and mind of a young pianist may be the early training of a master surgeon.

Music is somewhat unique when it comes to the way it interacts with our brain. Unlike sight, which is processed in the visual cortex, or speech, which is processed in the cerebral cortex, music is processed globally, even more-so if you are the person playing. Every part of your brain takes some roll in processing the music we encounter every day, so is it any wonder that music has such a profound impact on the we our brains work? Music’s global impact on the brain begins with birth, and continues throughout your lifetime, shaping how you learn everything from basic language skills to the times you remember fondly or with regret. Music shapes our brains and nurtures our minds.