How Learning an Instrument Benefits Your Brain

Learn how music starts (good) fireworks in your brain with this video lesson from TED-Ed and researcher Dr. Anita Collins

Unlike any other actvitity, practicing and playing music lights up a person's entire brain. As a musician reads the music, considers its interpretation, selects the right emotional presentation, and executes the technical skills to bring the music to life, that musician's brain is getting a full workout. Like any other workout, that exercise makes the brain stronger and ready to take on all sorts of other challenges in life.

A student appears in a graphic highlighting benefits of musicianship described in this article.

The Many Benefits of Studying Music

Scientists believe a musician's creativity is enhanced due to the stronger communications between the two sides of musician's brains (Schlaug, 2001). This equips musicians to be successful inventors, scientists, and engineers.

Research shows young musicians develop sharper language abilities, with music creating more gains than any other artistic activity (Moreno, et al., 2009). The ability to read, speak, and write is critical to school success in every subject, even math!

In fact, elementary school students participating in high quality music education earned 20% higher scores on language and math tests (Johnson & Memmott, 2006). Researchers believe the improvements found in musician's brains, such as better working memory, support superior academic achievement across the board (George & Coch, 2011).

Musicianship is widely found to develop greater self-confidence and motiviation, which is essential to success and happiness throughout life (Hallam, 2010). Just as studying music helps a person's own emotional wellbeing, researchers have also found playing music increases a musician's empathy and social awareness. This helps musicians build better interpersonal connections necessary in business and family life, as well as foster social behavior including the desire to help others in need (Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010).

Finally, practicing music improves mental health and resiliance, supporing better brain function throughout life (Hanna-Pladdy & Gajewski, 2012). In fact music study and therapy can even be useful in treating several disorders such as autism, Parkinson's disease, and hearing loss, and can delay the onset of dementia (Wan, et al., 2010; Zendel & Alain, 2012; Verghese, et al., 2003). Playing music can actually make you healthier!

Musicians Grow Greater Brain Mass

Musicians Grow Stronger Brains

When someone practices music, they actually change their brain!

“Musical actvity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about,” says Dr. Daniel Levitin (p. 299, 2009).

When scientists scanned the brains of musicians and non-musicians, they found significant differences. In the picture above, the colored areas show the areas where musicians' brains had grown larger than people who didn't play music (Bermudez, et al., 2009).

The part of the brain called the temporal cortex is often enlarged in people who play music. This is where the brain controls hearing, and in particular the functions which help us convert sounds into meaningful information like words and sentences (Schacter, et al., 2010). The temporal cortex is also believed to be critical to memory function (Smith & Kosslyn, 2007).

Musicians also often develop a larger frontal cortex, which is responsible for controlling movement, abstract thought, planning, and complex behaviors.

Why Use Handbells?

It makes amazing sense.
Students perform with handbells at a community venue.

Handbells and handchimes are an ideal “first instrument” for students due to their functional simplicity: They ring reliably every time with a simple motion. This frees the student to focus on the actual music.

In contrast, recorders, violins, flutes, clarinets, and coronets often used in early music instruction require a great deal of complicated physical manipulation with the hands, fingers, and mouth. The instruments themselves are complicated to tune, so even “pressing the right buttons” is no assurance of a pleasing sound.

This can frustrate new musicians and their audiences — just listen to a fourth-grade orchestra concert — and can cause attrition of students.

However, it takes just minutes to teach a new group of students to successfully play a song with handchimes. It will have all the right notes and even be in tune. The students have instant success which encourages them to continue their studies.

Using handbells and handchimes, students focus on true musicianship: How to read notes, how to interpret dynamics and count rhythm, how to listen across the ensemble, how to collaborate with the conductor, and how to determine the intent of the composer. The “team” nature of a handbell ensemble also requires students to each be accountable for “their” notes and supportive of their fellow musicians. (In a band, a student can just sit out and no one will be the wiser — that wouldn’t work in a handbell ensemble.)

As students develop musical competence, they are then free to take up other instruments. Since they already understand how to be musical in their rehearsal and performance, they can then focus on the intricacies of making their saxophone, piano, or cello produce the intended sounds.

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We #BuildBetterBrains in Champaign County, Illinois, and beyond. Sound Curiosity is an Illinois non-profit organization.

Sound Curiosity engages our community in learning through music rehearsal and performance enriched with exploration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

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