Music and brain development

Even more than listening, making music has benefits for your child’s brain development, explains Miranda Rocca.

As a mum and a musician, I’m always on the lookout for proof that making music grows children’s maths, science, and linguistic skills.

There is much literature available on the correlation between music and these subjects, but even more exciting is the now proven fact that making music creates spectacular brain activity, the benefits of which can be applied to any subject.

Australian Educator Dr Anita Collins completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne in the area of neuroscience and music education. In a 2014 TED Talk, Collins refers to the past few decades, where neuroscientists have been able to monitor tasks like reading and math problems in real time, determining corresponding areas of the brain where activity can be observed. When music is monitored, multiple areas of the brain light up at once.

Listening to music engages interesting activity, but it’s when a musical instrument is being played that every area of the brain is engaged at once – visual, auditory, and motor cortexes! When music is being played, the brain simultaneously processes different information in intricate, interrelated, and astonishingly fast sequences.

Additionally, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens brain function, allowing this to be applied to other activities.

Playing an instrument (as opposed to purely listening to music) engages fine motor skills, combines the linguistic and mathematic precision of the brain’s left hemisphere with the novel and creative right hemisphere, and increases the volume and activity of the corpus collosum (the bridge between the two hemispheres). This also enhances memory function, so musicians’ brains are more efficient in creating, storing, and retrieving memories.

Renowned conductor and music educator Richard Gill recently spoke on Radio New Zealand. He suggested that children need to learn how to listen to music, and that breadth and depth of repertoire is important. Children who only listen to one genre of music irrespective of the genre (ie listening only to pop or listening only to classical music) will encounter only a little brain activity. Very little new information is being introduced, so very little processing is taking place. If however, a child is relating to pitch (louder, softer, lower, higher), rhythm, and the text of music, the brain is spectacularly active. In most of us, the dominant hemisphere of the brain is the left side. Making music requires us to use both simultaneously.

Gill suggests that using singing to begin music making provides an accessible option for every child to learn the fundamentals of music. Pitch, rhythm, and music in parts can all be taught through singing, and there is the added benefit of not needing to purchase an instrument. Singing, dance, and word patterns all switch on the creativity button.

Learning to play a musical instrument teaches other skills, too. Mastering a new piece is like setting a goal and achieving it by breaking it down into achievable steps. Making music demands and develops perseverance, commitment, creative and critical thinking, listening skills, collaboration when working with other musicians, and the ability to work independently.

Let’s not forget, though, the unique offering of music education. For me, growing up in a big, busy family, music was my special place to escape. And it still is. Music connects us with our emotional side, our feelings. It offers us another form of expression and language to use when words can’t say enough. Einstein said, “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.” I’m with Einstein!

“I would teach children music, physics and philosophy: but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” ~Plato

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