We have discussed activities that can enhance our pupils’ learning before but music has to be the winner. Learning an instrument is known to improve cognitive function by enhancing recall and memory and strengthening neural pathways. This improves a child’s ability to learn languages and understand scientific concepts.
Outside of academic studies, musical training helps us to moderate our emotional state, make friends and have fun during the process. You may have heard of the ‘Mozart Effect’ which suggests that listening to ten minutes of Mozart a day can boost one’s spatial-temporal intelligence. But why is learning to play an instrument so good for us?
It engages the brain
Playing music is the brain equivalent of a full body workout. This is because music practice uses almost every area of the brain, including the visual, auditory and motor cortices. There are few other activities that do this and even less that can provide such rich and enjoyable experiences at the same time!
Stronger Neural Connections
The process of learning to play music actually forms new pathways in our brains and strengthens existing ones. Brain scans have shown that on average, musicians have larger, better connected and more sensitive brains compared to non-musicians. Specifically, the areas of the brain that are responsible for motor control, auditory processing and spatial coordination and the corpus callosum (a broad band of nerve fibres that transfers information between the two hemispheres of the brain) are larger in musicians compared to non-musicians. Research has also shown that the younger a child is when they learn to play an instrument, the stronger the new neural pathways formed in their brains are.
Playing an instrument requires children to manipulate their instrument in order to create the desired sounds. Therefore the increased strength of neural connections are particularly noticeable within the motor cortex of the brain. As a child plays their instrument, the motor systems in the brain that control both gross and fine muscle movements are activated. The sound created is then processed by the auditory circuits which in turn, feedback and adjust signalling to the motor control centres. When a musician becomes more accomplished and mature, they will begin processing emotional responses to their music as well, altering how they play the instrument to communicate these.
Working memory is the part of our short-term memory which is concerned with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing. It is referred to as working memory because it is involved in the selection, initiation, and termination of information-processing functions such as encoding, storing, and retrieving data. One test of short-term memory is memory span, the number of items, usually words or numbers, that a person can hold onto and recall. There’s a positive correlation between learning how to play music and working memory. A good working memory enables the individual to temporarily store large amounts of information which is useful when learning new skills or subjects.
By learning how to play music, children improve their ability to process sound qualities such as pitch, timing and timbre. And the brain skills involved in processing and interpreting music are transferable to processing language. Researchers have found that instrumental lessons have a specific effect on children’s ability to distinguish different pitches, which translates into an improvement in discriminating between words particularly useful when studying foreign languages.
Research has found improvements in the regions of the brain that regulate our behaviour, emotion, attention and future planning are also associated with learning music. The enjoyment we get from music and the strengthening of bonds between ourselves and our music peers helps us to learn and practice how to read and communicate our feelings effectively . This helps to improve our emotional intelligence, as we become more aware and understanding of how other people are feeling and can respond more empathetically.
Music can change the biological structure of our brain too. The band of nerve fibers, known as the Corpus Callosum, is known to increase as a result from learning how to play a music. This indicates that the two sides of the individual’s brain are better able to communicate with each other. This means that the individual is better equipped to switch seamlessly from different types of tasks.
Listening to and playing music is known to reduce stress levels by lowering the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol negatively affects brain cells in the hippocampus (the area of the brain involved with memory, learning, and emotional regulation). When we are stressed, the electrical signals in the brain associated with memories weaken, whilst the areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen. Hence a relaxed brain is not only a ‘happier’ one, it is a stronger and more efficient one.
Listening to music can also stimulate an increase in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is an integral part of our pleasure-reward system. It’s the same brain chemical responsible for the feel-good states experienced after eating chocolate or going for a run. And that’s not all, music is also linked to raised levels of oxytocin, which is associated with an increased capacity to bond with and trust others. Playing or listening to music in groups is especially good at increasing oxytocin levels.
Okay, what subjects are these skills good for?
We’ve already mentioned that musical skills are transferable to language skills and despite being a highly creative and artistic subject, music can in fact help pupils to excel in science as well. The spatial intelligence that it hones is believed to aid students’ understanding of difficult scientific concepts and how complex theories work together.
This is applicable to every aspect of school and life in general. Although some of us will be born with a flair and talent for music, when it comes to playing an instrument, practice really does make perfect. As you and your child will quickly discover, the ability to play an instrument doesn’t come for free. Although they may make it look effortless, professional musicians aren’t born with the ability to play music or sing as well as they do. Getting past the lower grades and onto more complex pieces takes hours worth of regular, dedicated practice. But when determined enough and when they enjoy doing so, children develop their self-discipline through learning their instrument and working towards exams and performances. This can spill over to their other subjects, as they will already know that if they consistently put in the ground work, they will succeed in the long run. And don’t forget that their improved working memory will make learning new topics and completing projects more easy to achieve.
One of the key measures of success as a teacher is having inspired your pupils to pursue their dreams and achieve great standards. That’s why, we are very excited to welcome the National Youth Jazz Orchestra Ambassadors to Cranmore for a workshop with our students today ahead of their joint concert this evening (14th February). The workshop will be an opportunity for pupils to learn more about the opportunities that becoming a member of such an orchestra provides, as well as access to helpful tips on how to get the most out of their own performances and ensemble groups. We hope this experience will inspire our students to discover the wide-ranging benefits and enjoyment of learning and playing an instrument.