Monday, 6 August 2018

4 Benefits of music on the brain

Playing a musical instrument is not only an excellent way to express yourself creatively, but also improves your brain functions, which leads to many positive effects on the quality of your life.

German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once said: “Life without playing music is inconceivable to me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music... I get most joy in life out of music.” 

There might be more to this quote by the prolific scientific genius, Nobel Prize winner and person of the 20th century according to Time magazine, than you would expect. Is it possible that music did not only serve as a delightful pastime activity for Einstein, but also contributed to his intellect? His musical life coincided with his scientific life, often being inseparable. Think about it! If a genius that is responsible for a significant number of the 20th century’s scientific breakthroughs, which forever altered our world, felt so strongly about how much music influenced his life, it may be worth investigating further…

Einstein grew up in a musical home, as his mother, Pauline Koch Einstein, was a talented pianist. She encouraged Einstein at the age of six to start playing the violin and also taught him piano. It is also worthy to mention at this point that Einstein developed very slowly during early childhood. He only started speaking at age four, he began his formal schooling education at age six and started reading only at age seven. In fact, many thought he was mentally handicapped as a child. Yet, he made tremendous progress and started learning Latin and Greek at age ten and could play Mozart’s violin sonatas at the age of thirteen.

So, could the exposure to music have contributed to the development of his cognitive abilities as a young child and even further as an adult? While we cannot go back in time to Einstein’s childhood to conduct such experiments, it is certainly very plausible.

According to scientists there is strong evidence to suggest that musical training can alter brain structure and brain function for the better. Arecent study done by neuroscientists, including Nadine Gaab, PhD, among other,from the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Boston Children’sHospital, concludes that there is a correlation (possibly a biological link) between early musical training and improved executive functioning. The stimulation of the brain when playing an instrument improves executive functions (which is responsible for regulating and adjusting behaviour and actions, processing and retaining information and solving problems) and cognitive functions (which include memory and abstract reasoning skills). Executive functioning is especially a forceful indicator of academic achievement – more so than IQ!

Music has such a powerful impact on our minds. In fact, playing a musical instrument will benefit your brain more than any other activity – including sports! Award-winning Neuromusical Educator Dr Anita Collins explains in her TED Ed lesson that you can monitor brain activity with fMRI and PET scanners to support this claim. When certain activities are performed, such as reading or solving a math problem, the corresponding parts of the brain lights up on the monitors. When they observed the brain activities of individuals listening to music, multiple areas lighted up – like fireworks! However, when scientists compared the brains of music listeners to musicians, they found that the little fireworks of the former paled in comparison to the explosion going on in a musician’s brain when playing an instrument. When you play a musical instrument it is equivalent to a full-body workout for the brain! It engages nearly every aspect of the brain. Though, the body is also very involved when playing an instrument.

Before we get into a debate about whether you should swap your current extracurricular activity for music, please know that an article published inLabour Economics, from a study conducted by Charlotte Cabanea and Michael Lechner from SEW and Adrian Hilleb from DIW Berlin, revealed that children who do both music and sports scored higher in academic achievement compared to children that only participated in one or the other. If you are interested in the equally fascinating benefits of sport on the brain, please read our article “4 Advantages of exercise and sport activities on the brain”.

In this article we discuss the following benefits of music on the brain: 

1. Neurobiological Benefits.2. Cognitive Benefits.3. Psychological Benefits.4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.

1. Neurobiological Benefits.

Neurobiology refers to the biological study of the brain’s anatomy, physiology and nervous system. The brain is the most complex organ of the human body. It consists of the cerebrum (divided into two hemispheres), brainstem, cerebellum, complex organisation of grey and white matter and neurochemicals. The brain processes, coordinates and integrates information and controls most of the body’s functions.

Recent studies determined through brain scans revealed that there is a difference in brain structure between musicians compared to non-musicians. The research suggests that the shape and power of the brain is altered through regularly playing an instrument and that the anatomical changes are more prominent when musicians start learning their instrument(s) at a younger age.

·       Playing a musical instrument increases grey matter volume in various brain regions.

The results of a study conducted by Christian Gaser andGottfried Schlaug on three groups of people which included professional musicians, amateur musicians, and non-musicians showed a significant positive correlation between the musician-status and increase in volume of grey matter. In other words professional musicians exhibited the highest grey matter volume, amateur musicians exhibited intermediate volume and the lowest volume in non-musicians. The differences in distribution of grey matter volume occurred in auditory-, visual- and motor cortices.

·       Playing a musical instrument increases the size of the corpus callosum in your brain.

Not only is the volume of grey matter increased in the brains of musicians, but also the volume and activity of the corpus callosum – the “bridge” of enormous nerve fibre bundles responsible for the long-range connections between the two hemispheres of the brain. The fine motor skills required to play a musical instrument is controlled in both hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere is involved in linguistic and mathematical precision, while the right hemisphere is involved in novel and creative content. Increased volume and activity of the corpus callosum allow the messages get across faster and through more diverse routes.

·       Playing a musical instrument increases the blood flow in your brain.

Playing a musical instrument for even a short period of time can increase the blood flow to the left hemisphere of the brain. Increased blood flow to the brain also yields more energy.

 2. Cognitive Benefits.

Cognition is the mental action or process of obtaining knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and senses. When you play a musical instrument you can sharpen your cognitive abilities.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves your concentration.

Musicians are required to concentrate on multiple things at once when playing an instrument. These include things such as pitch, rhythm, tempo, duration, and quality of note – everything to perform a musical piece with precision of technique and artistic emotion. Musicians are required to concentrate on even more aspects during a musical performance when playing with an ensemble 0r group, all focussing on their own unique melody and harmony lines which also include pitch, rhythm, tempo, duration, and quality of notes.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves executive functions

A study on musically trained children and adult musicians concluded that they experience increased performance for several aspects of executive functioning. These include planning, strategising, focussing on details, problem-solving, retaining information, controlling behaviour, and simultaneously analising cognitive and emotional aspects. An fMRI confirmed that activity in specific areas of the prefrontal cortex was enhanced during a test that made them switch between mental tasks.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves memory.

Executive functioning also impacts how the brain’s memory systems work. Playing a musical instrument and listening to music can enhance memory functions, allowing memories to be created, stored and retrieved more quickly and efficiently. Research also shows that, musicians use their highly connected brains to place multiple tags such as “audio”, “visual”, “contextual”, “conceptual”, “emotional” etc. on memories – similar to an internet search engine.

Two common types of memory is found, namely short term memory and long term memory.

Short term memory is the mind’s capacity to store a small amount of information that is readily accessible within a small time period. Short term memory is often considered as synonymous with working memory, though working memory refers more accurately to the framework of processes used to comprehend, interpret and manipulate the data stored in short term memory. Playing a musical instrument requires a high working memory load. Learning and remembering many musical compositions or songs, sometimes with lyrics, in a short time period, such as often required of musicians, is a very impressive achievement. When musicians regularly practise their instruments they expand their working memory capacity. An increased working memory capacity will yield improved thinking abilities.

When short term memory is retained after more than 2 minutes of the initial stimuli it becomes long term memory. Long term memory is the mind’s capacity to store data indefinitely. A research study led byacademy professor Petri Toiviainen, PhD, of the Finnish Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research (CIMR) at the University of Jyväskylä, and Elvira Brattico, PhD, of Aalto University and the University of Helsinki, found that the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for the storing of long term memory, is active when listening to repeated musical motifs or musical phrases in a piece of music.

·       Playing a musical instrument increases IQ and improves academic performance.

Music lessons predetermines high academic performance and IQ scores in young children. The outcome of a research study which included a group of 6-year-olds who took vocal or keyboard lessons for 36 weeks showed increases in IQ and standardised educational test results, when compared to children that took part in other non-music related extracurricular activities.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves your reading and comprehension skills.

Children that play musical instruments, and especially those who learn to read sheet music, display higher cognitive performance in reading and comprehension skills in comparison with their non-musically trained peers. The reason is that playing an instrument while reading sheet music means that you have to recognise note pitch, -rhythm and duration, including other instructions such as expression and articulation, on a page, comprehend that and translate it to a finger position and bodily action to produce a sound on your instrument.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves your mathematical ability.

Reading music requires counting notes and rhythms. These can boost your math abilities tremendously. Music theory also involves many mathematical aspects. Children who play instruments often score higher in mathematics as well as other subjects in in school compared to children who don’t play a musical instrument.


3. Psychological Benefits.

The brain is responsible for your psychological and mental states and music definitely influences the psychological aspects of the brain in a very positive and stimulating way.

·       Playing a musical instrument relieves stress.

Playing or listening to music can relieve stress. It is due to the calming and relaxing effect music has on people. It is an enjoyable experience that slows down the pulse and heart rate, lowers blood pressure and decreases levels of stress hormones.

·       Playing a musical instrument boosts mood and happiness.

Listening to music can put you in a naturally high mental state. This is due to the brain that releases the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which leads to feeling increased happiness, joy, excitement and overall well-being.

·       Playing a musical instrument builds your confidence.

Playing an instrument is a wonderful tool to help you build your confidence and allow you to discover yourself though self-expression. As children develop their musical craft they will most likely start to perform in front of small audiences, starting off with music teachers and parents, later in front of other peer groups and eventually play concerts. This will help them to get comfortable with presenting themselves and their work in front of people in a non-academic context.

·       Playing a musical instrument reduces depression.

Depression is a state of low mood which may affect a person’s thoughts and behaviour and cause disinclination toward activity. A depressed mood is often a normal reaction toward negative and traumatic life experiences – such as the loss of someone close to that person, rejection, disease etc. Depression is considered an illness, or, more appropriately, a mental disorder, once it lasts for several weeks with consistent symptoms that cause disruption in a person’s ability to function normally. It is accompanied by loss of interest in enjoyable activities and having low self-worth. Depression can be caused by genetic and/or environmental factors.

Our hormones play a critical role in our moods, and if they are out of balance or disrupted, can cause depression among other things. Music has a direct effect on our hormones. When you experience music, through listening to it or playing an instrument, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are released into the brain. These neurotransmitters are responsible for the increased feelings of joy, happiness and overall well-being. Norepinephrine, the hormone responsible for feelings of euphoria, is also released.

4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.

Music can improve other aspects of your life and allow you to live life to the fullest. Plato said: “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Playing a musical instrument improves socialisation skills

Playing a musical instrument helps you to engage in conversations in a unique manner, due to increased cognitive abilities and enhanced comprehension-, auditory- and language skills. Your brain will be able to think creatively and entertain abstract thoughts, which will make for interesting conversations.

·       Playing a musical instrument strengthens bonds with others.

Playing music in a band, ensemble or orchestra will teach you vital skills how to perform, work and cooperate with other people. In order to perform and or create good music together the players must learn how to read body language, pick up on small details and ques and listen to each other. Often an emotional connection is also involved when people express the same feelings in unison or contribute to their part in telling a story by means of music.

·       Playing a musical instrument enhances creativity.

The creative side of your brain is heavily activated when you play a musical piece. When you perform a piece or a song you inject some of your own personality into what the composer has written. The creativity starts to flow even more when you start improvising or writing your own unique material.

·       Playing a musical instrument refines your time management skills.

Timing and tempo, including rests is crucial to make a piece of music sound musical. Even more so, the process of learning how to play a musical instrument is very dependent on time and time management. Learning how to organise your time, schedules and routine is vital. The quality of practice time is more valuable than the quantity. You will see much quicker progress with the correct practice regime planned out. It will help you make your practice time more efficient.

·       Playing a musical instrument enhances your coordination.

Playing an instrument and reading sheet music requires superior hand-eye coordination. When you read music notation on a page, your brain recognises each note, comprehends it and converts it into specific motor patterns, such as a finger position and bodily motion that will produce the sound.

 We hope that you feel inspired to pick up an instrument and start playing music. Music can benefit your brain, which will ultimately improve your life in many ways. But most of all, playing music is a lot of fun and a very rewarding experience that is quite indescribable if you haven’t done it before. It is always great to start as soon as possible, since the effects on the brain will be the most substantial and lasting, but it is never too late to start, and you certainly shouldn’t give up! When the world famous cellist, Pablo Casals, in his 80’s, was asked why he continues to practice four to five hours a day, Casals responded with: “Because I think I am making progress”.

Let us know what instrument(s) you play or plan on picking up soon.