Thursday, January 16, 2014

Music: The Best Way to Boost Brain Power

We've had some requests from teachers about how to better support music programs. Here's an interesting article from our friends at We'll circle back soon with some resources that can be used to better support music education in your classrooms. If you have any great resources, please let us know! 

The following article was originally posted on December 16, 2013 on .

Whether students are tickling the ivories on the piano or strumming a guitar, the hours they spend in music lessons and rehearsals are worth every penny. According to Education Week, studies presented at a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting pointed to the many academic benefits of learning a musical instrument. According to the studies, time spent doing so has been connected to a positive boost in creativity, memory, decision-making and multitasking skills. As with any talent or skill set, the earlier students get involved in music, the better.

One of the greatest outcomes of music instruction is the pleasure that students get from listening to beautiful sounds—an intrinsically rewarding experience. Gottfried Schlaug, the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory director at Harvard University Medical Center, claims that few activities are as rewarding as music instruction. Students must organize and utilize multiple senses simultaneously and work with others while receiving an emotional experience that offers regular, immediate feedback. Schlaug said, “It’s really hard to come up with an experience similar to that.”

The ability to multitask well is one of the most useful abilities that students gain from music instruction. At the University of Montreal, researcher Julie Roy led a study to test both musicians and non-musicians in “sensory processing tasks.” The participants in the study listened to sounds while receiving touch stimuli to a finger. The task was difficult because they needed to ignore the sounds in order to report what they physically felt. When listening to more than one sound, participants often believed that they felt more than one touch. However, seasoned musicians had double the accuracy on these tests than their non-musical counterparts.

The benefits of music training don’t end there. At Beijing Normal University in China, Yunxing Wang led a research team from the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning in studying the brains of adults between the ages of 19 and 21. All of the adults had music instruction for at least a year between the ages of 3 and 15 years old. The results showed that individuals who began their music training prior to turning seven had more sophisticated development in the brain areas of “language and executive function.” While starting instruction at younger ages may lead to greater gains later on, researchers argue that music instruction is beneficial at any age. Ana Pinho, a Karolinska Institute researcher in Stockholm, firmly believes that it is never too late to learn an instrument. She said, “Even after stroke and disease, starting musical training can still help you get more from your brain. All of these findings show [musical training] can create a lot of plasticity that can produce effectiveness across the brain, in cognition and behavior.”

All of these findings are good news for music teachers, who have long advocated for quality music programs in schools. University of Southern California neuroscience Professor Antonio R. Damasio shares in such advocacy as he has been studying students from the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. In this orchestra, low-income students are offered free instruments and training while researchers commit to studying students for five years, beginning when students are only six or seven years old. In the Heart of Los Angeles site, teacher/conductor Nikki J. Shorts is impressed by how much the students, many identified as at-risk, mature over the course of a few years. Students learn discipline and how to concentrate. Shorts stated, “In order to cultivate the skills to sit and focus, they’re like athletes: We exercise our brains and our bodies, and then we have to take a break, relax, and come back to it. And over time, that skill builds up.” While schools don’t require students to learn a musical instrument, it’s clear that the benefits of quality music training are priceless.

--Michelle Manno is an Associate Editor at where she writes about education reform and pop culture pedagogy.

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