MUSIC AND THE BRAIN
The Power Of Musicality
If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. -Albert Einstein
The phenomenon of Glee and You Tube homemade music videos aside, there has been a (long overdue, and much-deserved) revival of liberal arts appreciation, especially of music. Much can be said of how music moves us on a daily basis, from as early as our third trimester in infancy. But for those of us who have received music lessons growing up, this art transcends self-awareness, expression, and inspiration (to one’s self and to others). Studies have shown we’re all the more better for it, in more ways than one.
Of a child’s experiences growing up, those that significantly influence a child for life have five characteristics. These developmental milestones are arresting, impelling, revealing, fulfilling and conscious. Learning music is without a doubt all of these and more, just ask anyone who has completed his first recital!
Over decades of study, we have established how music and continuous training in the form of music lessons advances child development across different skills. Aside from the obvious ones such as creativity and listening, the art enhances fine motor coordination (to manipulate the instruments), language development (learning the implicit rules of composition) and multiple intelligences.
A consistent finding across these studies is that the earlier the child is exposed to musical training, the greater the impact on his future mental abilities.
Musical skills have been closely studied in association with language aptitude: literacy, verbal memory, and reading ability have proven positive relationships with exposure to music. Pre-school age children- yes, those who run around a lot and aren’t easily convinced to sit down to read a picture book- have shown greater acquisition of reading skills. This holds true even in children with learning difficulties and poor language skills; a transformational experience for both the child who now gains self-confidence and the parents concerned about his future education.
When you think about it, music in itself is a second language, so it should come as no surprise when children who know it well exhibit the same impressive advantages in cognition as bilingual children.
Spatial Intelligence & Mathematics
A certain area of the brain’s structure has shown similar neural patterns when a person is engaged in musical and spatial reasoning exercises. What’s even more fascinating is that these could be reinforced by regular music training.
Spatial Intelligence involves being able to visualize how an object is made up of parts, and how when these elements are combined in a specific way, form a single whole. Remember those IQ tests that had a lot of figures to make sense of? Those are tests for this particular intelligence. This means that one understands symmetry, proportion and ordering – the foundations of mathematical and scientific reasoning.
The Sound of Music (Lessons)
Music lessons provide an environment conducive to developing the cognitive skills mentioned above, as well as strong character: regular practices require long periods of concentration, reading and interpreting musical notation, committing music sheets to memory, learning musical structures (such as notes, chords, intervals, scales), and constant improvement of technical skills to a point of excellence. Essentially, it is like having additional schooling (along with its benefits), but in a class that children find more enjoyable to engage.
Children first learn to express themselves and their emotions through their chosen instrument and musical piece. Music classes take this one step further by actively building necessary cooperative social skills. Especially as part of an orchestra or even a duet, a musician has to work together with those from other instruments to achieve the group’s goals, evaluate their performance, and decide how to improve themselves. Harmony within the group is not just in how they sound when performing, but also in the preparation they undertake together to showcase their talents.
All of these benefits from music lessons are not only evident in the behavior of the child, but can be seen as literal brain development. In a study, Gottfried Schlaug et al. used an MRI to study any differences in the grey matter of musicians and non-musicians. What they found is that musicians, especially those who started training as young children, had a bigger section in the cerebral cortex to process sound signals as well as a thicker corpus callosum. What this simply means is that there is long-term, physical evidence in how music training molds young brains to make the most of their mind’s capacity.
A consistent finding across these studies is that the earlier the child is exposed to musical training, the greater the impact on his future mental abilities. There is a learning window in music (much like in language) that begins to close between the ages of 6 to 10. If a child is given the opportunity to learn and practice music before this window closes, he is more readily able to adopt the rules and learning involved in music and language.