The Impact of Music on Children’s Brains
Life empowering aspects of music education that will change every child’s success in life
by Tania Miller
When children perform music they interact with the complex language of music — breaking down rhythms, reading notes and making a myriad of physical actions and mental decisions in flowing, unstopping time.
Music’s complexity connects children’s brains in an extraordinary simultaneous interconnection process. And this is exactly what optimizes their young brain’s potential as they develop! The human brain is capable of processing many different experiences and kinds of information all at once. As children develop, music can help their brains develop stronger connections and grow in areas that not only impact their interaction and understanding of music itself, but also many other aspects of their overall learning and mind growth.
Neuroplasticity and pruning in young minds
Children have a great deal of neuroplasticity or flexibility in their brains during youth. During this time there is an expansion of growth while they learn, adapt, strengthen connections and build understanding.
Babies are born with more synapses (the connections between neurons) than they will use, and develop many more still in their early childhood. This early explosion of brain potential then starts to prune away unused synapses (or what are deemed unnecessary) starting at the age of 2 or 3, and this carries on through childhood and adolescence. In essence, we are given more than we need, and what we don’t use
gets pruned away as each individual creates their own path.
A baby’s brain starts with all of these synapses so that it can be open to all possibilites. But this state is chaotic — there is just too much information. The pruning process is the brain’s way to simplify according to what each individual truly needs, and in this way the brain cleans house so that it can simplify and focus.
Every experience and learning opportunity that a child has is a part of their developmental process. Experience, learning and involvement strengthens the synapses in children’s developing brains in the areas they engage — and they keep, or grow these synapses in these areas — literally, their brains grow in connections and ability in the areas that they engage.
Music makes these connections
Music is extraordinary for children because it engages and develops a myriad of simultaneous connections and engages many areas of the brain, allowing these areas of the brain to be strengthened. Music requires kids to make and perceive patterns, experience and understand relationships, and to generate connections between their physical, mental, creative and psychological selves. This can help develop understanding and growth in all of their subject areas.
Regardless of what direction a child will ultimately take in life, interaction with music can have a powerful educational and developmental impact on their brain and harness the extraordinary neuroplasticity and strengthening of connections that is their potential in youth.
Music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem. Could this fact account for claims that music listening exercises other parts of our minds; that listening to Mozart twenty minutes a day will make us smarter?
This article will discuss ten areas in which music education develop’s a child’s brain and cognitive skills:
- Generative thinking (generating/creating new ideas)
- Mathematical structures and patterns
- Memory through structures and gestalts
- Right or left brain?
- An engaged brain learns more
- Brain neuroplasticity and growth
- Time requires flow
- Creativity and the subconscious
- Motor coordination and connection
- Generative thinking
An important cognitive learning skill for kids to develop is to use the tools that they have (vocabulary, concepts, rules, information) and to generate new thinking from these foundations. If they use their knowledge to deduce, draw connections, problem-solve, understand process, contemplate possibilities and create new ideas, they will strengthen neural pathways and create connections in their understanding.
In order for information to be relevant and meaningful, we have to spin it around in our own brains — to personally hypothesize, contemplate, understand relationships and take action. This is an engaged education and its process has lifelong impact.
Harvard cognitive and education professor Howard Gardner connects this idea to math in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences:
The most central and least replaceable feature of the mathematician’s gift is the ability to handle skillfully long chains of reasoning…if these links have been appreciated, the exact identity of the steps in the proof becomes less important, because, if necessary, they can be reconstructed or even reinvented.
This kind of thinking is generative. It means that a logical rule is being applied rather than rote information being literally remembered.
If the drift of the argument has been grasped, its re-creation proves a relatively simple matter. If one has not grasped the reasoning, however, one is consigned to falling back on literal verbal memory, which even if it rescues an individual on a given occasion, is unlikely to exhibit much staying power — Howard Gardner
In language, young kids come up with rules for language that they apply based on their chain of reasoning. As they learn to apply their reasoning to the past tense, “talk” becomes “talked”, and “skate” becomes “skated”. They might then apply this rule incorrectly to other words: sing becomes singed and sit becomes sitted using the same logic. But this is actually smart generative thinking, and eventually the child sorts out the rules and the exceptions while their “chain of reasoning” is continually making sense of new rules and ideas. Language generates infinitely — words can be put into countless configurations to express new ideas, sentences and combinations.
Similarly, music works in the same way. We teach young kids a song, they might repeat the song, but they learn, too, that they can add or take away notes, change rhythms, and add silly lyrics for fun. Young musicians learn basic rules for harmony, structure and rhythm and then learn that they can play any combinations of notes that they want to as long as they stick to the basic rules. They also learn that once they know the rules, they can intelligently break them and that this adds an extra layer of meaning, surprise and interest to music.
Musicians learn the tools of music (rhythm, notes, harmony) and then they generate, like language, an entire world of possibility.
Similarly, as music listeners, children’s brains process varieties of combinations, harmonic progressions, melodic lines and sounds. While listening and tracking music, their brain actively recognizes and notes patterns, devises and remembers structures and creates memories and predictions of everything it hears. An EEG of the listening brain shows it lighting up all over the place, using many parts of the brain at once.
Music engages kids to think actively and not to learn passively.
- Mathematical structures and patterns
In the mathematical mind, there comes the great pleasure in deriving, remembering and noting abstract patterns.
“Like a painter or a poet, a mathematician is a maker of patterns” — Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind
Music teaches us to create patterns in our minds and shows kids how patterns are embedded in every aspect of music-making. We hear music in four-bar phrases even before we know what that concept is. Often listeners have no conscious realization that many songs are built upon an AABA structure (that is verse, verse, chorus, verse) or ABABA (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse), but their brain perceives the pattern. Our minds note the groupings of certain chords that make up our favourite songs, three basic chords in a single key (C, F and G in the key of C for instance) and this creates a regular and familiar grouping in our mind.
With each new pattern or melody, our mind creates a memory trace, and then as we hear those patterns again, we get a great feeling of satisfaction, a feeling of home. Our mind builds blocks of these musical memories over a lifetime as we develop a deeper relationship to music through these patterns that we put together.
Children who study or listen to music are picking up these structures and applying them to everything they do. When they create a chord, or sing ‘Happy Birthday’ they are creating an instantaneous schematic which is lightning fast. As they break down rhythms in real time, or reduce harmonies into chunks, their brain is creating a reduced schematic of every pattern and piece of music — building a lifetime of connections and relationships in their mind.
The more the brain does something, the more it grows in that area. If a brain is constantly creating these groupings, reductions and rules, it builds its capacity to work quickly and intuitively in all areas. A child is then able to make relationships, perceive meaning, understand bigger picture ideas, and to apply these understandings to a variety of situations through a greater number of understood connections.
It has been shown that experts in any field are largely different from novices not just in general abilities or intelligence, but in how they notice meaningful patterns that aren’t noticed by others, and how they perceive and understand things differently as a result.
Research on expertise suggests the importance of providing students with learning experiences that specifically enhance their abilities to recognize meaningful patterns of information — from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Research Council
How exciting this is as it applies to language, math, creativity and reasoning of all kinds.
- Memory through structures and traces
Structure also helps us with memory. In fact, since the beginning of time, music was used in the telling of knowledge stories, poetry and ancient myths as they were passed down from generation to generation because the music brought structure, pattern and emotion to each story, and this helped both the teller and the listener to remember it.
Every piece of music that we listen to leaves a memory trace in our brains. How the brain acquires information and stores memories is one of the critical and fascinating topics of modern neuroscience. There are various theories about memory, but the memory tracing theory explores whether memories are stored as exact reproductions, or whether they are stored as abstract patterns or “traces”. When we hear music a second time, we recognize the stored combinations of tones and patterns.
Music listening starts with our memories. It functions on two issues — what we remember and what we expect. What we remember includes familiarity with melodies or styles, etc. (such as the sound and style of Sting, U2 or Mozart for instance), and then based on those past memories and experiences, we create our expectations. If we know a specific piece of music, like the Beatles’ Yesterday for instance, our memories are travelling with us at the same time as we are listening to the music and we can hear what’s coming even before it happens. Our memory lays out “what’s next” in a musical red carpet that’s just ahead of where we actually are in the music. This is expectation.
Our expectant memories act as if we are tracing the music in our heads, lying one page of translucent expectation on top of another page of memory and tracing what we see underneath. If anything goes in a direction we don’t expect, zing! — we get a huge emotional response. This is how music creates emotion out of surprise. Movies use this surprise effect all of the time. The jolt of electricity that we often feel while listening to music comes from the unexpected departures from what we expect.
These extraordinary surprises, emotions and explorations are all a part of the experiences that kids have when they are performing and interacting with music. Music requires children to engage in an activity that requires constant prediction and memory while residing in the present.
But also, in order for children to have success in making sense of all of these details, their brains need to create order, understand hierarchy and build connections. They learn to “chunk” large groupings into sections or structures, just as they do in math, (or just as chess masters do in chess). Music requires children to break the long sequences of notes and details into these various groupings — chords, rhythms, phrases and sections in order to break music down into efficient “understandings”. Children can learn to read the language of music and almost instantly reduce notes, rhythms and chords into single, memorable blocks. From this they can quickly learn and remember. They can then apply this skill to other subject areas.
The National Research Council’s How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School says this:
The superior recall ability of experts…has been explained in terms of how they “chunk” various elements of a configuration that are related by an underlying function or strategy…Short-term memory is enhanced when people are able to chunk information into familiar patterns.
- Right or left brain?
We often think of education in terms of right-brained and left-brained thinking: math, science and language are thought to be left-brained subject areas while arts and humanities are right-brained. Modern neuroscience has found that there is a greater degree of overall connectivity involved and that the real picture is more complex.
The popular conception that the left brain is analytical and the right brain is artistic has some merit, but is overly simplistic. Both sides of the brain engage in analysis and both sides in abstract thinking. All of these activities require coordination of the two hemispheres. — Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music
Music engagement creates a multitude of connections within the mind — memory, patterning, physical coordination, musical language decoding, emotional understanding, creativity and generative thinking all connect our minds in a fascinating flurry of interconnected activity.
Levitin describes these specific areas where music interacts with the brain:
Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem. Listening to music starts with subcortical (below-the-cortex) structures — the cochlear nuclei, the brain stem, the cerebellum — and then moves up to auditory cortices on both sides of the brain.
Trying to follow along with music that you know — recruits additional regions of the brain, including the hippocampus — our memory center — and subsections of the frontal lobe, particularly a region called inferior frontal cortex…Tapping along with music, either actually or just in your mind, involves the cerebellum’s timing circuits.
Performing music — regardless of what instrument you play, or whether you sing, or conduct — involves the frontal lobes again for the planning of your behavior, as well as the motor cortex in the posterior part of the frontal
Reading music involves the visual cortex, in the back of your head in the occipital lobe. Listening to or recalling lyrics invokes language centers, including Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.
At a deeper level, the emotions we experience in response to music involve structures deep in the primitive, reptilian regions of the cerebellar vermis, and the amygdala — the heart of emotional processing in the cortex.
- An engaged brain learns more
Studies have shown that we learn and remember more when we’re enjoying what we’re doing. When we are engaged and interacting with something, we have a greater focus, and our motivational reward system carries us into higher experiences of memory and thought.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that functions as a response to reward-motivated behaviour — it’s our brain’s reaction to rewards such as positive words of encouragement, success, social praise, and finding answers to problems. When we enjoy something or have success, our brain releases dopamine and we feel a rush of motivation and happiness in the experience that we are having. This has a powerful motivating power for all of us and can be a great motivator for kids in learning.
In the scientific study, The Role of Dopamine in Learning, Memory, and Performance of a Water Escape Task a study group of mice were used to determine how important dopamine is for learning. Half of the mice were injected with dopamine and half weren’t. It was found that dopamine’s presence enabled learning in a much greater capacity. But dopamine does more than just creating motivation. The mice study concluded that dopamine is important in engagement — connecting directly to attention span and memory retention.
When we care about experiences, we tend to remember them. Our emotions are connected to how we retain memories and interest generates deeper attention and as a result, greater retention of the details.
In learning, the term transfer means that we take the knowledge that we have (of a certain subject or situation), and transfer it to other situations, relationships, and possibilities. The ideal way for kids to learn is to understand big picture ideas or general understandings (as previously discussed) rather than just a memorization of facts and details, or specific steps in a fixed procedure. When we are engaged and motivated, we tend to deepen our exploration into the bigger picture and then can transfer these skills to other areas of learning.
Motivation to learn has a profound impact on kids. Social connection, and the sense of contributing to others is a motivating force. And, interestingly, the degree of effort and investment seems to have great impact as well. Many kids will describe the thing that they are most proud of or happy about in their school work as a project or a task that took a lot of extended hard work — a large group project for instance, or a science or art project which took greater time and extended care to complete.
Thinking about music, the effort factor runs deep. Each day a young person has to work away at developing skills — learning new music takes considerable mental and physical time and effort. Most kids practice a certain amount every day and can measure their musical development according to the time they put in.
But, in addition, their dopamine reward system in kicks into high gear when they learn music because it is a joyful, social, emotional and sharing experience. Children are motivated socially as they perform with their peers, they receive regular responses from their conductor about their progress, and they can connect their rushes of dopamine and pleasure to the sounds and swells of music that they hear and personally create.
When kids are interested in what they’re doing, they get their reward system involved, and their dopamine injections infiltrate their work with depth, curiosity and interest.
- Brain neuroplasticity and growth
Our complex brains are made up of cells called neurons. When these neutrons fire (by engaging in some thought or activity, for instance) they create electric signals that release neurotransmitters. These transmitters follow a path called a neuropathway and connect different parts of our brains. The spaces between each neuron is called a synapse. When a neutron fires, it causes a neurotransmitter to swim across the synapse to another nearby neuron, and then that neuron fires, and so on.
Understanding of neuroplasticity is developing all of the time — through studies of visual abnormalities, patients who have suffered strokes, or those who have had parts of their brains removed, greater understanding about neuroplasticity has emerged. As well, numerous studies on animals contribute to the growing body of evidence that our brains are plastic and can change according to our experiences and what we learn. It’s a fascinating and empowering topic.
There is growing evidence that both the developing and the mature brain are structurally altered when learning occurs. Thus, these structural changes are believed to encode the learning in the brain. Studies have found alterations in the weight and thickness of the cerebral cortex of rats that had direct contact with a stimulating physical environment and an interactive social group.
The plasticity process is easier, more flexible and quicker in young people. Children have the capacity to learn skills, such as music performance, more readily and easily when they are young. The same is true for developing languages. These synapses and neuropathways are developed, used, and retained in their brains while those skills or areas not being trained or used will “prune” away in a “use it or lose it” scenario.
The neurotransmitters in our brains connect various parts of the brain to each other through neuropathways. When we practice a skill, or continuously repeat actions in a certain area, we build superhighways in our brains in the areas that we are regularly engaging. The brain has the capacity to reorganize through neuroplasticity which vastly exceeds what was believed previously.
In learning music, young musicians are building pathways that are stimulated specifically by the requirements of music and generate unique growth in their brains. The corpus callosum is larger in musicians, especially those who start performing music at a young age. From Your Brain On Music: The Cognitive Benefits of Music Education by Laura Saunders:
Changes in the corpus callosum in a musician are particularly noteworthy during brain development that occurs from childhood until adulthood. In fact, musicians who started their training prior to the age of seven have even greater changes (Schlaug, Jancke, Huang, Staiger, & Steinmetz, 1995). The brain’s plasticity allows for measurable changes in that of the musician. The rigorous practice required for further progress in learning an instrument causes the brain to adapt.
This understanding that music connects the brain and develops new circuits is a profound reason for why music education is so important to every student. Music requires kids to interact with its complex language on so many levels — horizontal and vertical musical information, physical gestures, and listening, interaction and expression.
In Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain On Music:
Music listening enhances or changes certain neural circuits…the Harvard neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug has shown that the front portion of the corpus callosum — the mass of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres — is significantly larger in musicians than nonmusicians, and particularly for musicians who began their training early.
This reinforces the notion that musical operations become bilateral with increased training, as musicians coordinate and recruit neural structures in both the left and right hemispheres.
- Time requires flow
One of the unique aspects of music education is that music is time-based, and moves in a flow that can only be managed in real-time with full presence.
When children or teenagers interact with music, they have to manage thinking, brain connection, and motor control all within a continuing, flowing and unstopping time. The only way for this to happen functionally is for students to be present in real time. Music doesn’t allow kids to wander away mentally. If they look back or try to redo something, the music has moved on without them and they will crash in the present. Simultaneously, music education teaches us about anticipating the future, about making predictions — something it’s believed that our brain does regularly in reality.
Young musicians’ minds are trained to be present and focussed, and simultaneously they rely on their memories for countless details. As they perform, kids have to remember fingerings, notes, rhythms, chords, and they use their inner ear as they perform in real time to evaluate whether they are being effective.
A key aspect to success in life is involved around time. How we “time” the delivery of a speech, react to a discussion, cook a dinner or interact with business associates can be the difference between success and failure. We are constantly managing our goals in time-based requirements — getting this proposal done, studying for that exam, organizing a trip. Whether we can listen and be present when others are talking — to focus, or flow with time pressure and not to be distracted or stalled by looking back — these are time-controlled aspects of our brains. Understanding and awareness of time can empower our success.
Trust is an important factor in time-based learning. You have to jump off the edge and really go for it once time starts in a flow. You can practise, prepare, stop to work on details, redo things again and again — but in performance the time will go forward without stopping and a musician has to stay committed to the time no matter what. There’s the experience of practice, and then, there’s the test of execution!
Performance is a skill, and through music, children can build confidence for every performance-based activity that they do in their lives.
- Creativity and subconscious
Much of how we engage our subconscious minds and retrieve subconscious memories is still largely a fascinating mystery. But all of us can engage our creativity and find our personal ways to tap into this potential. It’s empowering to explore this side of ourselves and to know that it exists within all of us.
When children experience personal creative moments they begin to understand that there is more to their potential than they might have imagined.
We have all experienced connections to our subconscious where random creative thoughts pop into our minds or fresh plans or ideas emerge out of nowhere. Sometimes we have created a project, written something, or created art and marvelled at what we could do. When children experience this, they learn to trust that their brains have memories, power and potential (that we are only beginning to understand through neuroscience). They learn to believe in themselves, and to recognize that there are unknown capabilities within them waiting to be explored.
Creativity is a process that usually reveals itself when we “let go”, make space and quiet our minds to a certain degree so that connections move without our control or distraction. Often this special experience of “letting go” or finding something new comes to musicians when they go into the zone of their performances. Children learn that they have qualities and ideas that they didn’t know they had, that “just came out of them”. They learn that unexpected things can happen when they are focussed and present.
Connection to the arts opens up all of our understanding to potential and possibility. It causes us to think subjectively as well as objectively, and for kids it makes a space for emotion and personal expression as a viable means for learning and understanding the world and connecting to others.
Creativity is about the extraordinary human potential to imagine and create change. Children learn that their ideas can change the world around them:
Learning is a key part of the process, but the human capacity for change goes beyond just learning. Learning is about the way the world changes our mind, but our minds can also change the world — The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik
Children’s future success relies heavily on their ability to communicate, to interact with other people and to express themselves meaningfully. Often we can have a natural and successful conversation, while other times we find ourselves self-conscious and unable to get to our point or truly express ourselves the way we want.
Communication is a life-long skill that continues to develop as we learn from experience, build upon our knowledge and gain expertise in the world. Sometimes we have the information, but the communication of that meaning is something that can elude us.
Confidence is a key aspect of communication, and often we can struggle to communicate effectively if we are self-conscious or disorganized in our thoughts. Words escape us, or our path of expressing ourselves becomes muddled, over-explained, or meandering in its point. Sometimes, too, trying to communicate something demonstrates the holes in our understanding and makes us realize we need to understand something more deeply.
Music is a communication skill. The profound difference though is that it doesn’t have to use words. Kids learn to express the essence — mood, character, style, expression, emotion — and they can leave behind the specifics of words. In this way, they focus on expression itself, they can learn the art and impact of expression, of the “how” — without worrying about the “what”. This is a powerful skill that will enable them to interact successfully in their presentations and social interactions throughout life.
Communication skills essentially are like music performance. If we have to talk to someone, give a speech or presentation — we think, work, practice, but then, we must trust and let our knowledge and ideas flow. In music, kids learn that there is a difference between preparation and true spontaneous communication (which is the performance itself). It takes courage and trust to let go.
And, one of the beautiful aspects of music is the way that it communicates directly to the children. Adolescents especially need music to sort through their mixed and often confused feelings. With the challenges and pressures of day-to-day life, music can communicate to kids in a sort of mirror reflection that reflects back what they need to feel or hear, and seemingly understand and give them the emotion or energy that they need.
- Motor coordination and connection
One of the most important aspects of music is how it makes our bodies feel. Music makes us want to move, to connect, and through this movement it can change our mood, and connect to our whole bodies. Music motivates us, and changes our mood to such a degree that we can interact with it in ways to change our energy. If we want to have more energy and drive, we can put on exciting and pulsating music, if we want to calm down and relax, we can put on music that helps us get into that state.
The physical connection that kids have to their bodies is incredibly important. Young children and adolescents need to expel their energy and express themselves through their movement. Music education is a chance to connect this energy to their minds, and to use the emotional experience of music-making to manage and recognize their various physical states.
Young musicians develop extraordinary fine motor control in order to perform successfully. Fingerings need to be specific and timed with air flow or arm movement, rhythm needs to be coordinated with the full-body experience of performing. Listeners of music are creating time patterns, repetitions and constancy of rhythm in their brains, and are learning to coordinate their muscle control, even if just through tapping along or dancing to the music.
This connection of mind to body is life-enhancing.
Educationally, music is a profound learning experience for all children. It’s a unique education that connects, empowers, and develops the full brain and influences the psychology of every young person. It’s a positive learning experience too, filled with a personal motivational system that clearly demonstrates the results of practice and hard work and rewards the student regularly for every moment of commitment.
Children learn to connect to music with their minds and bodies, and the energy and spirit that develops in this relationship will enhance the rest of their lives. Performing music with others creates a social bonding experience and connects them in a positive relationship with others.
We enhance our lives if we develop self-awareness and pay attention to the world around us with openness and possibility. Music keeps these connections open in our minds, develops those potentials for big ideas and creativity. Music education helps children to build learning connections that enhance the structures, organization, and flow of how they think and builds the potential of their brains. No matter what children eventually do with their lives, music education will empower them and enhance their lives for whatever their futures may bring.