Your Brain on Music

By Ariana Crisfulli 2019-05-09 17:06:09

Turn on any kids show - from today or decades ago - and what will you find? You’ll find puppets, cartoon characters, or actors singing songs about numbers, letters, colors, grammar, and just about anything that you can teach in a two-minute ditty. And is it any wonder? Music is a fantastically engaging way to teach and to learn.

While we don’t need a reason to listen to or play music beyond the fact that it’s enjoyable, there is something to be said for the auxiliary skills that music offers. When you play music, especially from a young age, it changes your brain in positive ways that can help with things like cognition or problem solving. 

This is backed by studies showing that musicians tend to have higher cognitive abilities as well as heightened skills in an area called executive functioning. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive functioning is the mental processes that allow brains to plan, focus attention, remember instruction, and successfully juggle multiple tasks - and musicians are particularly adept at switching tasks and rules very quickly. 

Many claim that learning to play a musical instrument will enhance cognitive functioning that can lead to the acquisition of specific skills like math and language. However, researchers are still unsure if music has the ability to increase cognitive functioning, or if higher cognitive functioning leads one to become a musician. Whatever the case may be, it is certainly clear that there is a strong relationship between learning music and learning other subjects and skills.




By learning to play the violin, these Wellingtonians are not only gaining musical abilities, but also auxiliary skills that can help them further their education.


When you learn to play an instrument, you’re learning many things at once. You must keep time and rhythm, memorize patterns, read symbols, coordinate finger movements, and in some cases synchronize with other musicians. Musicians must also – consciously or otherwise – keep track of half beats, interval frequencies, and other mathematical nuances. Basically, there is a lot of math going on behind the scenes when you play a musical instrument. This doesn’t mean that playing an instrument will make you a math whiz. After all, musicians aren’t running numbers in their heads while they play a song. What it does mean is that the brain on music is better primed to recognize what is relevant in a complex process, which may help with cognition and problem solving that is needed for other subjects like math. 

On some level, all music is math. So even if you’re not inclined to play a musical instrument, music still has its benefits when it comes to learning math. For example, music can be used to teach fractions, a subject that can be difficult to learn and that has a long-lasting impact on future math courses such as algebra. In an innovative curriculum in California, researchers really put this idea to the test. The curriculum, called Academic Music, uses music notation, clapping, drumming, and chanting to introduce third-grade students to fractions. The students draw musical notes on sheet music, ensuring the notes add up to four beats in each bar or measure. By teaching students the time value of musical notes, the curriculum provides a way to interact with their math problems in a very hands on and engaging manner.

And guess what? Students who participated in the Academic Music program scored a whopping 50 percent higher on their fractions test at the end of the study than students who had taken the regular math curriculum. 


Language, reading, and communication

A Wellington, music is considered an important piece of a student's education.


While researchers may still be scratching their heads about the exact nature of music and math, it seems that there may be a clearer connection between music and language. According to neuroscientists at The Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, the part of the brain that is stimulated by music is also very closely linked to general sound processing that is fundamental to language development, reading skills, and successful communication.

But does playing music make enough of an impact to improve these language-related skills? This is exactly what the researchers at USC wanted to find out. Splitting 37 students into three groups, they conducted a five-year study in Los Angeles to examine the impact of music instruction on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. One group took after school music lessons, one group joined an after school community soccer program, and one group did not participate in any specific after school programs. 

Within two years of the study, the group of children who were learning to play instruments showed faster maturation of their auditory systems than the other two groups. And because the auditory system is also closely linked to general sound processing that includes language, reading, and communication, researchers believe that this musically enhanced maturation of the auditory pathways could accelerate the development of language and reading.

But that’s not all. Learning to play music can help the brain pick out meaningful information in a world where we’re constantly faced by a barrage of it. As we walk down the street, as we cook a meal, as we chat with friends, or as we try to focus on our work in a busy office, we’re hit by more stimuli than our brains can possibly process. Instead it must pick out the most important bits to present to you. Because musicians are attuned to listening to various pitches, melodies, notes, and so forth, their brains have a heightened ability to selectively enhance sounds that carry information, according to Nina Kraus, the director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. And what is language but a series of sounds that carry meaning? Thus, musicians are primed to learn new languages where they must begin to determine meaning from new sounds.

Mr. Mulliner, the Director of Music at Wellington College International Shanghai, also points out that this is especially important in Shanghai where foreign-born students are learning Mandarin. Musicians’ ears are more finely tuned to pick up tonal differences in a language that relies heavily on tone for meaning. 




At SAS, students learn that music can help them transcend boundaries and connect in more meaningful ways to other subjects.


Do you ever find yourself singing along to a song on the radio that you didn’t even know you knew? You probably heard the song a couple dozen times as background noise in your car, in a store, or in a restaurant. Before you knew it, that song had ingrained itself into your psyche and one day you simply found that your lips were moving along to the lyrics. And think about how many of your favorite songs you know by heart. Probably quite a few. Chances are you’ve listened to your favorite songs hundreds of times and those lyrics have simply stuck. This combination of repetition plus a catchy tune is an excellent equation for memorizing verbal information.

This technique is often used in early years classes where teachers must teach simple lessons such as numbers, colors, grammar rules, spelling, manners, etc. In fact, I bet most of you couldn’t even say the ABCs without singing them. But this technique is not just for little children. Medical students, who must memorize mountains of information during their training, often take advantage of music’s ability to assist in memorization. 

In one interesting case, music was used to help medical staff memorize asthma procedural guidelines. The story goes that a doctor at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, Tapas Mukherjee, noticed to his dismay that 55 percent of nurses and doctors at the hospital were not following proper asthma guidelines, and that 38 percent did not even know that the guidelines existed. He created a video where he sang the guidelines and posted it to YouTube where it quickly went viral among hospital staff. Two months later, Mukherjee discovered that 100 percent of the staff now knew the guidelines and that compliance with the guidelines had increased significantly.

When we think about what this means for our students who must memorize vast quantities of information in order to pass their exams, the possibilities are very exciting.

Plus, Dr. Townshend, a music teacher at Shanghai American School, reminds us that learning a song on a musical instrument takes plenty of memorization and recall. The brain must call to mind chord formations, the patterns of notes played in a song, and so much more. The brain is a muscle to be strengthened, and with the constant memorization of new songs, the part of the brain that handles memory becomes more robust. For students who learn how to play music, this means that, come exam time, their memories will be primed to take in and recall information needed to score high marks. 


Soft skills


SAS students learn to accept others' viewpoints by sharing the kinds of music they like or dislike.


Getting along in school and in the world at large does not only necessitate the ability to do basic math, read, and communicate (although it certainly helps), it also requires other softer skills. Soft skills include interpersonal communication, emotional maturity, the ability to work in a team environment, and the ability to self-soothe in stressful situations, among other things. Basically, they’re the set of skills that enable you to have good relationships and to live a happy, satisfying life. While music plays a major role in many areas of a student’s life, it is these soft skills where music may have the biggest benefit.

For example, playing in a band teaches students to work together to solve a problem or to combine ideas to create a piece of music as a team. Or, learning a complex piece of symphony teaches patience and perseverance, and adds a sense of achievement and confidence when the piece is mastered.

Both Mr. Mulliner and Dr. Townshend agree that music is an avenue to skills like open-mindedness and acceptance of others’ viewpoints, and that music can help young people form opinions and a sense of self. Mr. Mulliner, for example, encourages his students to listen to music from all genres and all time periods as an exercise in horizon expansion. This accomplishes two things. One is that it helps students find a sense of self by determining what music they like or don’t like. The other is that it reminds students that there are people who may like the music that they themselves find unpleasant, and that it’s important to accept others’ viewpoints. He does not ask that his students like every kind of music, only that they are able to intelligently express why they like or do not like something – thus forming an intelligent opinion - and that they are accepting of others’ preferences.

Soft skills also include the ability to self soothe in moments of stress. Today, students’ take on an ever-increasing workload and commitments in order to get into competitive universities and jobs. It could certainly be argued that students need a way to escape and relax as much as they need tutors to help them pass tricky subjects. Music – whether you play it or listen to it - is a way for students to take a step back from the rat race and to center themselves. This skill is important for school, but it’s probably even more essential to life beyond graduation where the pressures of adulthood come into play. 


Final thoughts

Music – whether you play it or listen to it – has so many implications for learning. At the moment we’re only scratching the surface. With every study and every story, we get closer to learning just how much of a role it plays in our lives and in our brains.

Knowing this, educators are finding unique and creative ways for their students to interact with and learn from music. Today we have the luxury of seeing schools like SAS and Wellington that do as much as they can to make education exciting and transformative. In Wellington, we see departments working together to create amazing projects like raps about Newtonian physics or compositions based on DNA code. At SAS we see passionate teachers like Dr. Townshend who understand that music is not just a subject in its own right, but a thread that connects subjects together. What better way for a student to connect with history or another culture, he says, than to play the music from that time period or that country? It has the power to allow us to time travel without a time machine, and to hop borders without a passport.

I know you don’t need an excuse to listen to music. We listen to it because it makes us feel something or because it brightens our day or because it reminds us of another time. But it doesn’t hurt to know that when you’re playing the guitar or listening to your favorite song, you’re also making yourself smarter.


Good to Know:

• To learn more about Shanghai American School courses and curriculum, visit: 

• To learn more about Wellington College International Shanghai courses and curriculum, visit: