Your Brain on an Instrument

Brain Development Studies
In 1997, a team of researchers set out whether or not “music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning” (Rauscher, Shaw, Levine, Wright, Dennis, Newcomb, “Neurological Research,” Volume 19, No. 1, February 1997). A study was conducted in which 78 preschool children were divided into four groups. One received singing lessons, a second computer lessons, a third had free play, and the fourth had lessons on a musical instrument.

It was a tightly controlled experiment that went of for 6 months, with each group receiving 20 minutes of individualized instruction per day. A spacial-temporal test was administered at the beginning of the study and one at the end. The results were stunning to all involved. While the first three groups exhibited the normal projected increase that comes
with age over time, the instrument group had a 46% increase in their raw spacial-temporal IQ scores.

These attributes were tested for long term effect and were considered by memory researcher standards to in fact be long-term in nature. The studying concludes by saying, “We suggest that an improvement of this magnitude may enhance the learning of standard school curricula that draw heavily upon spatial-temporal reasoning abilities, such as mathematics and science.”

Since then, scientists and psychologists have gone on to researching in more detail the ways in which the study of a musical instrument has an effect on verbal ability and analytical reasoning skills, as well as a whole host of other areas such as mood, tension, and mental clarity (see the list of studies at the end of this page).

Why did this happen?

How the Brain Works
The brain stores information by receiving a sensory input (a pat on the back let’s say), which sends an electrical impulse to a neuron, which travels through to what we call a synapse, or a place where the end of one neuron (the axon) connects with the end (or dendrite) of another.

If you get patted on the back enough times in the early year of your life, that neural connection happens so frequently that the axon and dendrite makes a permanent connection. In other words, you don’t need to be patted on the back again in order to know what it feels like. You have created capacity to  store that information in your brain.

There are three ways information gets stored in the brain. One is through intensity, another through frequency, and still a third through duration. The brain is an amazingly beautiful thing, incredibly complex and inter connected such that there are literally billions and billions of neurons that make connections with each other — this is how we think.  Connecting neurons creates capacity, and capacity facilitates high intelligence.

Timing is of the Essence
95% of all the neural connections you will make in your life happen in the first 12 years. So by the time you’re 12, your brain has developed or made connections with as many neurons as it’s possibly going to make.  Life after 12 primarily involves using the connections that you developed during that earlier window of opportunity, with relatively little additional neural growth.

These connections determine a person’s ability to think, to compute, and to reason.  A person who has more neurons connected is more likely to be able to understand larger and more complex concepts better later on in life.

Instrumental Studies = The Ultimate Multi-Sensory Experience
Playing a musical instrument is the only thing that stimulates multi-sensory information at the same time with the same set of perfectly ordered information.  Music is mathematical, music is perfect.  There are no exceptions to the laws of music like there are in English.  Music is arguably the highest form of communication, because it is so perfect.  If you play a concert A on the violin, that pitch will vibrate at 440 Hz per second.  If you play the next A up one octave (8 notes higher), it vibrates at 880 Hz per second.  The next one down.  Yup, you guessed it.  220 Hz.  Vibration is mathematically perfect.  Music is also perfect because it has a scale of notes that is very clearly regulated.

Perfectly Organized Sets of Information
When you play a musical instrument, you’re doing a lot more than just making sound come out of it.  You’re seeing a set of organized information when you read the notes on a page or look at the instrument itself (or both), you’re hearing that same set of organized information, and you’re feeling it, tactilely and kinesthetically.  You’re getting all three of the major sensory input pathways to the brain stimulated simultaneously, with the same set of perfectly ordered information.

What this does is create a tremendous neural network, because those neurons are connecting up in complex, sophisticated ways.  Practicing a musical instrument is like boosting the RAM, the processing memory, on your computer.  You literally, neurologically, are growing your brain.  And so it makes sense why studies have shown that it’s the single most important thing you can do to help a child develop their capacity to be a more intelligent human being.

Organization is very important in the neurological life of a child.  Learning and playing music is the only activity that engages all three senses using perfectly organized sets of information. No other activity has the power to do this.

At the Risk of Sounding Alarmist… it’s Now or Never!
We tell our parents that when it’s time to practice, it’s not just time to practice, it’s time to grow your child’s brain.  Whether a child continues on with their instrument into teenage or adult years doesn’t matter at all, because whatever you do when they are young is what establishes the neural network that they will live with for the rest of their lives.  Chances are, if you wait to see if your child shows an interest or demonstrates innate talent, you’re going to miss the window of opportunity.  It benefits them most to get the earliest possible experience.

Research Links
Music Training Causes Long-Term Enhancement of Preschool Children’s Spatial-Temporal Reasoning
First Evidence That Musical Training Affects Brain Development In Young Children
Playing a Musical Instrument Helps Brain
Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning
Effects of Music Instruction on Developing Cognitive Systems at the Foundations of Math and Science
A Grand Unified Theory of Music
Music Benefits the Brain, Research Reveals

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