Column: Music and the mind – the neuroscience of learning

SONY DSCYou know that jingle for some product (beer, coffee…) that just pops into your head? Sometimes you are singing a jingle or the theme song to a favorite show in the shower even if you haven’t heard or seen either for years. That’s because music simultaneously activates several networks in our brains, ones that help us learn, store, and remember information.

In fact new brain research is revealing that music is one of the best vehicles for focusing attention and boosting mood to the degree that our brains can optimally learn and retain knowledge. Any early childhood teacher could tell you that songs and chants grab attention, build group cohesiveness and can be used to help children learn and follow routines, rules and a myriad of cognitive skills. If you think about it you don’t need a neuroscientist to tell you that the rhythm, melody, patterns, sequences, and emotional connections music elicits in all of us act as memory aids, hence the phrase, a “catchy tune.”

Music can literally catch and hold our attention, partly because it snaps us out of the ordinary cadence of speech, it’s fun, and hits both of what scientists tell us our brains seeks – pleasure and patterns. In trying to make sense of the world our brains seek patterns and derive pleasure from solving problems that are just challenging enough to entice our attention and effort. When music is a component of learning, the neurotransmitter dopamine is triggered. Dopamine is central in what’s called the reticular activation system, the process by which information comes into our brains and gets ferried to the pre-frontal cortex to be stored and accessed for later use. Dopamine is only triggered when we find something interesting and pleasurable enough to give it our full attention.

When it comes to funding our schools, it always seems that we are in a budget- tightening cycle, be it preschool, secondary education, or community college, money is always tight. Recent research into the benefits of children participating in music education, especially starting at a young age, are very compelling, and could lead us to take a hard look at our priorities and at how we spend our scare resources. Specifically, learning an instrument can play an incredible role in building young brains in a comprehensive and lasting way as perhaps no other skill. If someone told you there was an educational tool that could be fun, grab kids attention, boost memory, boost executive functioning skills, increase speech perception, increase the ability to understand emotions, build perseverance, build teamwork, boost language and reading skills, and boost math skills, you would want that for your children. You would want that for every child.

According to Dr. Nadine Gaab, a neuropsychologist and researcher at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, “There’s lots of evidence that if you play a musical instrument, especially if you start early, you have better reading skills, better math skills, etc.” She goes on to explain that in a recently published study her team found: “A connection – in both children- and adults – between learning to play an instrument and improved executive functioning, like problem solving, switching between tasks, and focusing.”

At the moment, there is no definitive proof that being involved in music, particularly learning to play an instrument, improves executive functioning, but Gaab’s current research is beginning to show just that. As she puts it: “It is most likely that musical training improves executive functioning, because you have to play in a group and listen to each other. There are lots of different brain systems involved in successfully playing even a small musical piece: your auditory system, your motor system, your emotional system, your executive function system, this playing together of these brain regions is almost like a musical ensemble.”

This is a very different idea than the “Mozart Effect” claims, which speculated that just listening to Mozart, could boost a child’s IQ. Dr. Ani Patel, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, says that while listening to music can be relaxing, there is no scientific proof that it will make you more intelligent. On the other hand, said Patel, learning to play an instrument involves factors that are known to promote what’s called brain plasticity, the changing of the brain’s structure as a function of experience. For educators and others who are fans of Howard Gardner and his theory of Multiple Intelligences, this all makes sense. Playing an instrument covers at least five of the eight areas: musical (auditory), kinesthetic, logico-mathematical (patterns, etc.), spatial/visual (notes, musical phrasing, etc.), and linguistic/symbolic (music is a symbolic language). Educators are encouraged to provide experiences that will reach all types of learners, so reaching five at once is remarkable. One thing brain research has clearly discovered is that interactive learning is always better than the passive lecture type, and happier kids are more successful learners. Soon scientific evidence may compel us to ‘sing another tune,’ namely, instead of seeing music programs as extras and cutting them we should be finding ways to invest in them for all kids.

Katy Carrese Merrell (MEDFIELD) / February 21, 2015

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