It has been long established that consistent, high quality music education promotes rapid cognitive development in children. We know that music education raises the IQ level in children by around 7.5 points, or close to 20 percent, and that musical training is associated with higher scores in both math and language tests. But recent findings in brain scans and neuroscience underline just how profound these benefits are to a child’s rapidly developing neural networks. In a recent study at MIT, scientists note that music sensitivity may be more fundamental to the human brain than is speech perception. “There are theories that music is older than speech or language,” one of them writes. “Some even argue that speech evolved from music.”
How Music Helps Your Child’s Brain
By analyzing scans of the auditory cortex and grouping clusters of brain cells with similar activation patterns, the MIT scientists have identified neural pathways that react almost exclusively to the sound of music—any music. You can be blue-toothed to Bach, bebop, banjo or Beyoncé—a set of neurons nestled within a furrow of the your auditory cortex will fire in response to the music every time. This is an astounding finding, as it shows that we all have a distinct area in our brains that is closely mapped to the domain of music.
We know from a number of recent and older studies that the act of making music facilitates high levels of cognitive function, including complex problem solving, logical reasoning, as well as conceptual tasks. Research has shown that musicians have highly developed memory systems. When musicians create a memory, for example, they typically put tags to it, connecting a sound or phrase with emotional, conceptual, or visual elements. This process assists memory skills used in other areas. As a case in point, children with one to five years of musical training were able to remember 20 percent more vocabulary words read to them off a list than children without such training could recall.
According to the late neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, M.D., fMRI scans demonstrate that brains of musicians appear and function differently (and more effectively) than the brains of people who are not engaged with music. When musicians listen to music, their brains show more active and brilliant illumination than do the brains of non-musicians. When musicians play music, those neurons fire even more brightly and quickly. In this sense, playing music is akin to cross-circuit training for the brain—exercise that builds stronger and denser neural networks that can then be activated in tasks related to language, sequencing, and mathematical operations.
Among other physiological differences, musicians who begin training around 7 years of age have a significantly larger corpus callosum, which integrates motor, sensory, and cognitive performance between the right and left lobe of the cerebral cortex, so that messages are able to travel more quickly between these regions. The corpus callosum plays a critical role in diverse brain functions including vision and eye movement, regulation of attention and arousal, and tactile localization. By regularly strengthening this key organ, musicians are more likely to be inventive problem-solvers, and capable of sustained attention to an activity or study. Even after one year of music study, astounding physical changes can be seen when before and after brain scans are compared.
A recent and pioneering Finnish study revealed that music affects many different regions and wide networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity. All of these areas, and many more, are activated while actively listening to and learning to perform music. The study is ground breaking, in that it for the first time reveals how wide networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity, are activated during music listening.
The Finnish researchers found that music listening employs large-scale neural networks. Processing musical pulses recruits motor centers in the brain, supporting the idea that music and movement are closely intertwined. Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were found to be involved in processing rhythm and tonality. Processing of timbre, or tone color, activated the so-called default mode network, which is associated with mind wandering and creativity. These results support the long held hypothesis that music can and does enhance numerous aspects of learning and creativity in ways that no other academic or artistic discipline can.
Music Builds Creativity and Character
While music is in some senses a type of language, and is associated with language regions in the brain, it has unique characteristics that set it apart. Unlike other languages, music’s phonemes are devoid of denotative, or directly signifying, meaning. Music does not directly refer to anything outside of itself, and cannot directly narrate or tell a story on its own. It is up to the listener to find the emotional and ideational “story” or meaning that a piece of music conveys—which is why developing critical and active listening skills is so important.
By engaging with the evocative and suggestive language of music, a child’s mind can open in extraordinarily creative and imaginative ways. Children also can learn acceptance and flexibility, as no two listeners will hear the same message from a piece of music. Young people will glean startling and equally valid things from learning the way others hear music, opening doors to worlds inside themselves and strengthening empathy and imaginative collaboration. Through the non-competitive world of ensemble participation, students develop many positive character traits (indeed Chinese music pedagogy frequently cites “character development” as one of the top goals of music education.)
A composition with a name such as “Hall of the Mountain King” is therefore not a blueprint or a portrait, but rather an invitation to enter into the world of the imagination through sound. Sonic abstraction offers children the chance to move into a unique world in which they are encouraged to express themselves, make their own music, and to make the music their own. Mimicry and imitation in early years segues into performing, improvising, composing, and critical listening. The ultimate goal is for each student to find his or her own voice and ears through music.
Becoming fluent and expressive in the language of music requires nothing more than exposure and passionate guidance. The great jazz musician John Coltrane stated that his most formative music influence outside family was his high school music teacher. In North Carolina, at the height of the enforced segregation of the Jim Crow era, a single superb teacher stood out and changed both his life and the course of music history.
The notion that a child must be exceptionally intelligent or super talented to take part in music activities is a myth. Randomized neuroscience studies have shown that the positive effects of music instruction impact everyone, regardless of skill level. The key factors are consistency in exposure, and excellence in teaching. With regular, high quality music instruction, every human being can experience the cognitive, emotional, and creative benefits of music in their lives.
Music Appreciation in America Compared to Other Countries
It is well known that the United States lags far behind other developed nations in math, science, and reading. One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy, and other key skills among 15-year-olds in many countries. The most recent PISA results (2015) placed the U.S. at an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. A survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that just 16 percent called the U.S. kindergarten through 12th grade STEM education “above average.”
Arts Education has a spotty history within American secondary schools. The benefits of such education are well recognized and documented. But while there are clearly established mandates in New York State Education Law requiring that students in seventh through 12th grades receive core arts instruction taught by certified teachers, a report by the NYC Comptroller noted that “the provision of arts education in New York City’s public schools has become both inequitable and underfunded. Instruction in visual arts, music, dance, and theater has been weakened by over a decade of disinvestment and disincentives and a school accountability system based on federal and state priorities–that fails to fully recognize the value of comprehensive arts education.” An astounding 25 percent of NYC high schools, 24 percent of middle schools, and 9 percent of elementary schools in New York City lack partnerships with any arts and cultural organizations whatsoever—and this, in a city that boasts some of the world’s premier performing organizations, creative artists, and venues. Predictably, many of these schools are in low-income areas.
A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts report showed that high levels of arts engagement by the lowest socioeconomic quarter of students corresponds with a greater numbers of students who complete high school calculus, exercise their right to vote, do volunteer work, earn a bachelor’s degree, and choose a professional career path. Still, when schools face budget challenges it is very often the subjects that are labeled as “extracurricular activities” or “specials” like music that first come under the budget-cutting knife.
It is interesting that nations whose students consistently outperform the U.S. in math, reading, and sciences—or example Singapore, China, and Finland—are the countries in which music has a central place in the curriculum. Frank Hodsoll, Chairman of the NEA, noted that in first through sixth grades, the Japanese require two class periods per week of music, including singing, instrumental performance, and appreciation of both western and Japanese music. In several highly ranked European countries, intense music instruction (up to four hours per week) is compulsory throughout the first eight years of schooling.
Studying Music is a Smart Move
While the correlation between musical instruction and academic performance has been well established, recent advances in brain imaging now enable us to validate that making music alters the fundamental structure of young brains. Consistent engagement with music strengthens memory, facilitates language acquisition, enhances spatial and mathematical learning, and provides an edge in solving complex problems. There is a direct correlation between music engagement and increased high school graduation rates, and even a connection between music study and higher income levels.
Just as significantly, the study of music fosters social and emotional learning that are just as important—if not more critical—to life success as academic achievement. Music helps us express and moderate our emotions, soothes us in times of stress and trouble, helps regulate energy and arousal levels, and gives us inestimable skills for navigating that thorny world of peer interaction. Even in utero, the fetus is immersed in a world of sound—breath and heartbeat, rhythm and vibration!
Imagine how the fabric of our country would change if those students who are currently denied the opportunity for first-rate music education had access to it. One would expect to see not only stronger academic outcomes, but also better citizens, with young people more socially and civically engaged, in full possession of the remarkable and fundamental ability to express themselves through sound, with passion and eloquence.