The Whole Brain

What is the one activity you can do that will simultaneously engage almost every part of your brain?

Yes, believe it or not, playing a musical instrument is that activity.

More so than listening to music, playing a musical instrument stirs the chords of the brain.

We will walk you through what happens to your brain “on music”. You will learn how playing a musical instrument sharpens key skills. You will also see how it nourishes the whole person.

Maybe you’re thinking… I teach science. How I am going to help my students by learning about music and the brain?

Playing a musical instrument actually improves a student’s abilities in other subject areas.

You will gain practical tools to encourage your students to use music to broaden their minds.

Your Brain “on Music”

When you put your fingers to the musical keyboard your brain activates the auditory, motor, and visual cortices all at once. This is partially due to the fine motor skills required to play an instrument, which stimulate activity throughout the brain.

Corpus CallosumIn a video by Dr. Anita Collins, this is described as “fireworks going off in the brain” or “equal to a full body workout”. Dr. Collins explains what happens in the brain after repeated exposure to playing.

For one, musicians have been found to have a larger corpus callosum. This is a pack of neural fibers connecting the two hemispheres of the brain. The corpus callosum regulates transmission of information across the brain.

What exactly does this mean for musicians though?

Well, having a larger corpus callosum allows information to pass through the brain at a quicker rate. It also allows for messages to move through more creative pathways in the brain.

One can see how this might encourage better problem solving skills. It is also useful in refining executive functioning skills. Musicians are thought to have even more developed memory systems than others. Studies indicate that these benefits may, indeed, be the case.

The list of advantages to playing a musical instrument is nearly endless, ranging from improved emotional control to the ability to focus longer.

The research into playing a musical instrument is still in infantile stages, as new neuroscientific research is always emerging. Nevertheless, the little that we do know can go a long way.

Developing the Whole Person

As humans, we are emotional creatures. As my previous article revealed, even a most rational activity such as decision making is strongly influenced by emotion.

Hallie Cohen, a middle school music teacher, showed her students how to use music as a way to express their emotions.

She also tapped into research on mirror neurons, in order to use music as a means to evoke empathy.

ViolinMirror neurons are neurons that light up in the brain not only when we perform an activity, but also when another person performs that same activity. This demonstrates that we use our memories to empathize with others.

Mrs. Cohen showed her students a documentary about girls their age who play string instruments. However, in this case the girls play their instruments in war-torn Afghanistan, instead of in a public school in Ohio.

“So, I wanted them to understand how, you know, these instruments are a voice, a voice in their communities, a voice to each other. [The instruments] serve a much larger purpose than just, you know, ‘Ok let’s have fun in our strings class.’”

After showing the documentary, she asked the students to compose a melody that illustrated how they felt about what they just watched.

In essence, she asked them to not only express themselves through music, but also to empathize with others through their instruments.

What she got back was something unique to what she had previously experienced. “Their faces said something different, their sounds changed. . .They were really thinking about what to do with their instruments to connect on a deeper level with their emotions.”

She admits, “I also want to teach them something fundamental about humanity and how music impacts that.”

What she did was tap into the brain’s ability to empathize, while revealing our creativity in expression. Mrs. Cohen uses musical instruments to develop the whole person.

Music and Language

homework and musicSo, getting back to your original question now. How does research about music help me teach my students science (or language arts, or math, for that matter)?

Dr. Nina Kraus runs the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northeastern University. It is here that she researches how language processing and music are intricately linked.

“There have been a number of studies. And the language abilities seem to be strengthened by the music instruction more than the art. And so these language-based skills seem to profit from music instruction.”

Dr. Kraus claims that musical training gives our brain the ability to quicken our response when hearing sounds. It also helps our brain to distinguish distinct sounds from background noise. This has obvious benefits for our use of language and our ability to understand others.

Not just scientifically proven to sharpen our language and listening skills, playing an instrument has further benefits. These advantages help students to excel in other subjects, as well.

An Experiment in Music

The Harmony Project is a non-profit organization that brings music to underfunded inner-city schools. It equips each child in the project with an instrument and weekly professional instruction. They are part of an orchestra and perform concerts.

The Harmony ProjectDropout rates are about 50% in the neighborhoods where The Harmony Project does their work. Yet, they boast 100% college acceptance rates for the year of 2015.

Vianey Calixto participates in the Harmony Project. She claims that learning to play a musical instrument has helped her improve her grades. It taught her how to focus, in order to be able to appreciate and complete work in other classes.

“In science, I had very low grades. Once I started learning about music, being able to practice on concentrating, my science grades have gone higher and so have my other grades in other subjects…Science is now one of my best subjects.”

Dr. Margaret Martin, the founder of The Harmony Project, enlisted the help of Dr. Nina Kraus in understanding the affects of musical training on the brain. What she found is that playing a musical instrument directly affects the nervous system.

In the words of Dr. Martin, “Doing it [playing an instrument] transforms your nervous system. It makes you, basically, a better learner.”

Practical Steps for Teachers

Now that you know that playing an instrument literally alters the brain, how can you help bring music to your students? As we all know, the first “subjects” to typically get cut out of budgets are music and arts programs.

Music is more than just a subject to be torn from a budget or supported. It is a life-transforming activity.

As a teacher there are a number of practical steps you can take to encourage your students to take on playing an instrument.

  1. You can teach your students about the benefits of playing a musical instrument. We know that learning about the brain, especially its high plasticity, can help students want to better themselves. This could be worked into a language arts class through reading a scholarly article on music and the brain. It can be worked into a science class through focusing on the different components of the brain that music stimulates. It may even be able to be worked into a math class. Check out Math, Science, Music for more information.
  2. Support music in your school, district, and community. Yes, be an activist for the benefit of your students. Approach your principal about broadening music instruction. Jump on board new campaigns to bring music to youth in your community. Do what you can to join the cause.
  3. Assign musical projects to your students. For a college course on Shakespeare, Dr. Margaret Del Guercio gave my class an option for our papers. Either we could write a typical college paper, or we could complete a project to express our interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. I chose the latter. Not only did I learn about sculpting (which is the project that I took on), but I learned to use different mediums as a mode of expression. It was clearly one of the college experiences that I remember the most.

Be that teacher who pushes the boundaries of creativity. Be the one who gets your students’ minds excited about learning.

Abstract Violin


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