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Playing An Instrument Leads To A Better Brain

Does music affect brain function? Of course, anyone who sings along to their favorite songs thinks so. And playing a musical instrument has even greater implications for brain health. Anita Collins in her TED-Ed Talk argues for keeping music education in schools.

Neuroscience and Music

Neuroscientists have made enormous breakthroughs in understanding how our brains work. For example, instruments like FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanners enable scientists to monitor brain activity in real time.

Daily tasks, such as reading or doing math problems, have corresponding areas of the brain where the activity can be observed. And when people are hooked up to these machines, researchers can actually see the brain activity. However, when researchers got the participants to listen to music, they saw fireworks.

It turns out that while listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing music is the brain's equivalent of a full-body workout. (1)

In fact, the neuroscientists saw multiple areas of the brain light up, simultaneously processing different information in intricate, interrelated, and astonishingly rapid sequences. Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once, especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices.

baby playing music instrument

Playing An Instrument Benefits The Brain

Not only does playing music stimulate multiple areas of the brain, but it has also been found to increase the volume and activity in the brain's corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the bridge between the two hemispheres. This bridge enables messages to cross the brain faster and through more diverse routes.

This may allow musicians to solve problems more effectively and creatively, in both academic and social settings.

Similarly, making music involves crafting and understanding its emotional content and message. As a result, musicians often have higher levels of executive function, a category of interlinked tasks that includes planning, strategizing, and attention to detail. It also requires simultaneous analysis of both cognitive and emotional aspects.

Music and Memory

The ability to connect emotional and rational events also has an impact on how our memory systems work. And, indeed, musicians exhibit enhanced memory functions, creating, storing, and retrieving memories more quickly and efficiently.

Studies have found that musicians appear to use their highly connected brains to "tag" memories. Each memory can receive multiple tags, such as a conceptual tag, an emotional tag, an audio tag, and a contextual tag – similar to a good Internet search engine.

Is it really about playing an instrument?

How do we know that all these benefits are unique to music, as opposed to, say, sports or painting? Alternatively, could it be that people who go into music were already smarter to begin with?

Neuroscientists have explored these questions. So far, however, they have found that the artistic and aesthetic aspects of learning to play a musical instrument are different from any other activity studied, including other arts.

Moreover, several randomized studies of participants compared participants who learned music with those who experienced other activities. Participants began at the same levels of cognitive function and neural processing. During these studies, researchers found that those who were exposed to a period of music learning showed enhancement in multiple brain areas, compared to the others.

Talk about a good reason to keep music study in school!

This recent research about the mental benefits of playing music has advanced our understanding of mental function, revealing the inner rhythms and complex interplay that make up the incredible orchestra of our brain.
  • What do you think about these developments?
  • Do you play a musical instrument?

Take a look at the video below for more information!