How Learning Music Boosts Your Brain Power

Playing music improves our mood, benefits our long-term emotional health, connects us to those around us, and is the best part? Playing music is fun and personally rewarding.  If happiness and enjoyment alone aren’t enough to justify making space for music lessons in your busy schedule, learning music is also one of the best things you can possibly do for your mind. 

Likewise, musical education is one of the most long-lasting gifts you could give to your child.  The mental benefits of music lessons will follow them well into adulthood and beyond. Studies show that children who grow up playing and listening to music have faster brain development. 

Taking music lessons at any age improves a wide range of cognitive functions, increases the capacity to learn almost anything, and heightens the brain’s ability to recover from injury and resist age-related decline.  

Memory and Language Skills

Playing music trains the brain to interpret and react to audio and visual information instantly.  When music notation is involved, music students must also learn to translate symbols into sounds.  Such skills correlate strongly with the cognitive skills needed for strong language and academic abilities. 

Countless studies have compared children who take music lessons with children who do not.  Children who receive musical training improve their capacity for vocabulary recall, processing spoken instructions, and reading comprehension significantly more than children who receive no musical training.  Still more studies of both children and adults show that musicians of all ages demonstrate greater working memory, verbal fluency, and literacy compared to their non-musician peers.  

Brain Plasticity (The Ability to Learn)

One of music's most profound benefits is that it primes the brain for all kinds of future learning. The adaptive capacity of the brain, called plasticity, is the foundation for learning everything from new motor skills to critical thinking and comprehending abstract concepts. Playing an instrument integrates a range of skills that include reading a complex symbolic system (music notation), translating that information into coordinated movements, reacting to sensory feedback, memorizing passages, and improvising within given parameters. 

Making music combines executing precise physical and mental skills with flexibility and creativity.  Musicians need to respond to key information and unexpected input quickly and creatively, which cultivates an immense capacity for problem-solving.  A mind that is trained to meet the intense demands of music-making is prepared to learn anything that comes it's way.  Learning music sets children up for a lifetime of adaptive learning. 

Multisensory Processing Abilities

When you play music in an ensemble, you process various sources of information simultaneously.  You listen to the sound of your own instrument, react to sounds around you, make eye contact with other ensemble members, and process written information -- all while staying in rhythm.  Each of these skills by themselves is a feat to develop, but music demands that they be fully integrated with one another.  In developing the ability to process sight, sound, and touch all at once, musicians develop increased connectivity between the brain’s left and right hemispheres and between auditory and motor regions.  The increased connectivity across various brain regions certainly contributes to the enhanced language skills and learning abilities mentioned previously.   In addition, it heightens subtler abilities such as the capacity to perceive emotions in the voice and the coordination to handle multiple tasks at the same time.

Recovery From Injury

Victims of brain injuries and strokes can use music to recover cognitive and motor functions.   For instance, patients who are unable to speak after an injury or stroke are often able to sing words that they can’t speak.  This is because while the pre-formed pathways to the language processing center are disrupted, music provides an alternate pathway to access that part of the brain. You can compare this to being stuck on a highway in a traffic jam: if you exit the main highway and take a side road, the detour can bring you to your destination much more quickly.  Once the language processing center is reactivated, it can start to form the new connections needed to recuperate speech. 

Similarly, musical training after an injury can facilitate recovery.  Stroke patients who receive short-term musical training on piano or drum pads are able to recuperate motor control with greater precision and ease.  Adults with Parkinson’s disease who struggle to walk can strengthen their movement and coordination through music and dance.  

Slowing of Age-Related Decline

Musicians are less susceptible to age-related decline in cognitive functions, memory, and motor control.  It’s common advice that intellectual activities such as reading, writing, and crossword puzzles help keep the mind active.  However, the mental benefits and protective effects of playing a musical instrument are far more pronounced.  This is due to the multisensory nature of music-making and the way it integrates intellectual and creative tasks with the processing of audio, visual, and tactile stimuli.  

As a recent AARP report explains, therapists often use music to trigger memories in older adults with dementia.  Songs from childhood can help patients recall people and places from earlier periods in their lives.  This can both slow the progression of memory loss and calm the agitation commonly suffered by dementia patients. 

Benefits Extend to All Ages, Abilities, and Backgrounds

Children and adults alike benefit from learning music.  When children receive long-term musical training from a young age, the developmental advantages benefit them for the rest of their lives.  Even adults who took music lessons as children and later stopped playing demonstrate faster auditory responses decades later.  Furthermore, beginning music lessons at any age has been proven to increase brain plasticity and our ability to learn new skills.   

It’s also worth noting that reliable research on music and the brain controls for variables that affect a child’s relationship with music.  For example, children with greater inborn cognitive abilities may be more drawn toward learning music, and children from comfortable socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to have access to music education. 

Properly conducted studies, such as those summarized in this NIH article, take these factors into careful statistical consideration, and the benefits of music remain unarguably and remarkably clear.  Music lessons improve the brain’s function regardless of a child’s natural mental capabilities, regardless of the environment in which they grow up.  

Listening to Music is Good, Learning Music is Better

Popular belief claims that listening to certain types of music boosts intelligence.  It's certainly credible that listening to music we enjoy can boost our mood and relax our minds, both of which affect our cognitive functions positively. 

However, the rumors that simply listening to music make you more intelligent don’t hold up to scientific studies.  Studies of the effects of musical training, on the other hand, repeatedly and reliably confirm the benefits of playing music.  Therefore, listen to music all you want and don't hesitate to encourage your children to do the same.  But to take advantage of music’s lifelong benefits on learning, memory, and cognitive health, music lessons are a must. 

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