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Music & The Brain

Music impacts learning. You may have heard this before, but you most likely don’t know how or why. We are going to help you accurately understand the scientifically proven relationship between music, learning, and the brain. In general, learning music improves the neuroplasticity of your brain: the brain's ability to change and adapt. Think of it like this: just as flexibility is to your body, so is neuroplasticity to your brain.

 

Discovery has been in communication with expert scientists on this subject from around the world, including Dr. Nina Kraus from the BrainVolts Lab at Northwestern University in Chicago. We have received help in understanding how learning music biologically changes the brain, the benefits associated with those changes, and advice on designing our music program at Discovery. Through extensive research, we know that learning music:

  • increases blood flow to the brain and helps develop new neural pathways

  • promotes physical coordination and fine-motor skills

  • improves concentration, memory, and recall

  • fortifies the brain’s executive function that manages critical tasks like
    controlling behavior, processing information, and solving problems

  • reduces stress and anxiety, boosts mood, and eases depression

  • builds social bonds and interpersonal skills

  • helps the brain recover from stroke and brain injury

  • strengthens language and reading skills (The Kennedy Center)

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Our specialized music and rhythm training program at Discovery will help all children, but it should be noted that this kind of training has been scientifically proven to be specifically beneficial for children with a variety of learning disorders such as ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Autism. 

The following sections summarize the scientific research we've done, and will help you to understand what music does and doesn't do. 

Mozart Effect

A lot of people think that simply listening to music, and especially classical music, helps children learn or become more intelligent. In the early 1990’s, the phrase, “The Mozart Effect” was coined. It suggested that children who listened to classical music would have cognitive benefits. While classical music is pleasant to the ears, can be soothing, and can even help to reduce pain, listening to it does not have any impact on a child’s ability to learn, and in many instances listening to it while studying actually proves to be detrimental.

In 1996, there was a large study done in Great Britain on 8,000 children. The children were divided into three groups. One group listened to Mozart, the second to a description of the experiment, and the third, pop music. After listening, each child was asked to firstly “complete a square” (a test that involved choosing the correct picture that would make the partial picture, of the square the children were given, complete). The second task involved viewing a drawing of a piece of paper that had been folded in quarters: once in half vertically and then again in half horizontally. In the folded state, shapes were cut out of the paper. Children were given options to choose which drawing accurately represented the piece of paper when it was unfolded (where would the cut-outs appear in the paper when it was unfolded?).

The results indicated that there was no significant difference, between the groups in the “complete the square” test. However, children who listened to pop music did better on the folded paper test. The overall outcome of the study showed that there is a relationship between an individually enjoyable experience (not necessarily Mozart or even music) and better spatial abilities, however it has only a temporary effect. You can read the study here.

So how does music really impact learning and the brain?

​Rhythm

  1. Rhythm: When most people think of rhythm, they think of keeping time with music. However rhythm isn’t just found in music. It is found in nature (ocean waves, rain, wind, etc.); it is found in speech; it is found in traffic; it is found all around us.

  2. What is new information to almost everyone is that your brain has its own rhythm, separate from any external influences. When you concentrate, your brain produces rapid, rhythmic electrical impulses called gamma waves. When you relax, it generates much slower alpha waves. (NPR)

  3. The rhythm of the brain is associated with literally everything you do, from the subconscious to the conscious--from digesting food to dancing. People with Parkinson's, schizophrenia, autism and epilepsy are among some of the people groups who suffer from abnormal brain rhythms. (NPR)

  4. The auditory system is intimately interwoven with the motor system. The brain is constantly trying to make sense of sounds, and it is one of the most complex tasks the brain has to do. The motor system is also controlled by the brain and the rhythms of the brain impact how precise our motor skills are.

  5. People who train to have a more accurate rhythmic response to music (clap perfectly with the beat) can actually improve the way the brain responds to rhythmic patterns and thus improve the accuracy with which their auditory system collaborates with their motor system.

​​Learning an Instrument

  1. Someone who plays an instrument in an orchestra must be able to hear their own note amidst many other sounds. This means that as children learn music, their brain becomes more adept at being able to pick out one conversation thread, focus on it, and allow the other noise to become “background” noise, thus improving their ability to hear speech in noise.

    • Impacts: concentration, focus, and interdisciplinary uptake of auditory information

  2. Someone who has learned music is able to differentiate different sounds more quickly and accurately.

    • Impacts: language and speaking abilities

      • If someone doesn’t hear something properly, they won’t be able to reproduce it (speak it) accurately.

      • Incredible fun fact: If you play a piece of music for someone and record their brain wave while it is being played, you can then play that same brain wave back through a speaker and it will sound similar to the original music.

  3. The ability to problem solve and think abstractly is more pronounced in a musician.

    • Impacts: Executive Function (which consists of working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control)

      • "Children who received music lessons showed improved language-based reasoning and the ability to plan, organize and complete tasks, as well as improved academic achievement," says Dr Jaschke. "This suggests that the cognitive skills developed during music lessons can influence children's cognitive abilities in completely unrelated subjects, leading to overall improved academic performance. (Science Daily)

Infographic From the Kennedy Center:

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