The Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, discovered the relationship between the length of a string on an instrument and the pitch that the string produces. He believed that this correlation was part of a harmonic relationship that connects everything in the universe, which he called The Music of the Spheres. While he didn’t have the benefit of today’s brain imaging technology, he just may have been right.

It All Starts with Vibration

Vibration generates waves of high and low compression. Human brains interpret waves that fall between 20 to 20,000 Hz as sound. The vibration, usually carried by the air, enters our ear, eventually stimulates the auditory nerve, which sends a signal to the brain. Here’s where the fun begins. The more generalized sounds that we experience throughout the day are processed primarily in the auditory cortex, where specialized neurons have been tuned to specific frequencies through experience.

But music isn’t just a single sound. It’s a complex weaving of sounds, mixed with rhythm and sometimes language. Using brain imaging technologies, including fMRI and PET scans, neuroscientists have discovered that music engages multiple parts of the brain.

Playing a Musical Instrument Changes Your Brain

It is this powerful, widespread and instantaneous effect on multiple parts of the brain that may explain the powerful ways that engaging with music enhances seemingly diverse brain functions. Playing a musical instrument enhances key cognitive functions, including problem-solving, memory, planning, attention to detail and emotional intelligence. Perhaps the best example of how frequent, disciplined playing of music affects these skills is Albert Einstein, who was an accomplished violist and often played his instrument to sort out difficult problems. Listen to just how accomplished he was in this rare recording of him performing.

Our Brains Are Predicting the Next Note

The brain’s predictive capacity is believed to be a key factor in our survival as individuals and as a species. Your brain is constantly performing complex predictive calculations, based on sensory information and memories of experience. This pattern recognition plays out in our ability to read music and convert the written notes into specific movements of our bodies that generate sounds at specific pitches, volumes, durations and rhythms. Even an untrained brain responds almost immediately to music and begins to predict the next note before it is even played. Watch artist Bobby McFerrin demonstrate how his audience predicts the next note in their shared performance without his prompting. When someone has been formally trained to perform music, they listen with an even heightened ability to dissect, predict and analyze music on an unconscious basis, often also stimulating the muscles in their body required to play to the music themselves, demonstrating a more symmetrical pattern of activity on both sides of their brains.

Applications for Learning Professionals

At a time when funding for education in the arts is dwindling, the research shows that we need to broaden our view of music and think of it as a core information processing skill, rather than an aesthetic “nice to have” pastime. If you want your learners to be able to:

  • Recognize patterns
  • Solve problems
  • Memorize and retrieve information
  • Communicate effectively with language
  • Get in touch with their emotions

… you should consider incorporating music into your program. Neuroplasticity teaches us that it is never too late in life to take up a musical instrument, and the cognitive benefits could be substantial.

Music May be Our Native Language

Multiple studies in neuroscience and psychology suggest that infants demonstrate an innate ability to respond to music and suggest that, from a processing perspective, “spoken language is a special type of music.” Anthropology suggests that human language and music have a “shared evolutionary history,” demonstrating that as human language evolved, our musical expression evolved along similar lines. This observation originates with Darwin, who suggested that the first humans may have communicated in song, rather than in spoken language as we know it today.

We are a race of singers – let’s channel our inner singer and give our brains the gift of music!