How music education sharpens the brain, tunes us up for life

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Elementary students practicing music at school.

Credit: Music Workshop

When Amy Richter was a little girl, her father often traveled for work. He often came home bearing gifts of music and record albums. They bonded while poring over all that vinyl, she recalls, exploring the world of music from classical and rock to bluegrass. 

Richter’s love of music only grew as she got older, and she studied voice and piano. Diagnosed with dyslexia, she also found that music helped her cope with her learning disability. It helped her gain focus and confidence. That’s why she studied music therapy in college. She knows the power of music to supercharge our brains.

“Music really became the guiding force in my education and helped me to connect with other people, helping build confidence through performance, also helping with my mental health,” said Richter, who founded Music Workshop, a free music curriculum designed to cultivate a love of music from a young age, that can help schools beef up their arts offerings on the cheap. Schools across the country, including hundreds in California, from Yuba City to San Diego, now use her program. “It really became a tool in my life to better myself.”

To be sure, aficionados of the arts have long argued that art transforms us, but in recent years, neuroscience has shown just how music can shape the architecture of the brain. This cognitive research illuminates the connection between music and learning and gives heft to longstanding arguments for the power of music education that are newly relevant in the wake of California’s Proposition 28, which sets aside money for arts education in schools. 

“The K-12 grades are the years in which brain function is most rapidly evolving and information from all different types of learning and subjects is being processed and absorbed, including connections across what we might think of as different school subjects, but they are all connected in our developing brains,” said Giuliana Conti, director of education and equity for Music Workshop, which is particularly popular at schools that often tap substitute teachers in an era of high teacher absences.

“Music education provides physical and auditory experiences that work like bridges for brain structures. As the brain processes musical sounds and body movements, neural pathways across different regions of the brain grow and strengthen. The more those pathways are activated, the more usable they become across time and other skill sets or learning experiences.”

Amid the ongoing crises in literacy and numeracy plaguing our schools, and the enduring sting of pandemic learning loss, many arts advocates are pointing to music education as a way to boost executive functioning in the brain. This enhanced cognitive function, often coupled with a surge in well-being, may be the secret sauce that makes music education such an academic powerhouse, research suggests. Music may prime the brain to learn.

“Music is this wonderful, holistic way of engaging almost everything that is important for education,” said Nina Kraus, a noted neuroscientist at Northwestern University who studies the biology of auditory learning, in a webinar. “First of all, we know that the ingredients that are important in making music and the ones that are important for reading and literacy are the same ingredients. So when you’re strengthening your brain by making music, you’re strengthening your brain for language.” 

Kraus, who grew up listening to her mother play the piano, is passionate about the impact of sound, ranging from the distracting to the sublime, from noise pollution to Puccini, on the brain. The gist of much of her research is how thoroughly sound shapes cognition. Music training, for example, sets up children’s brains to become better learners by enhancing the sound processing that underpins language, she says. 

While we live in a visually oriented world, our brains are fundamentally wired for sound, she argues. Reading, for example, is a relatively new phenomenon in human history, while listening keenly for a sound, say a predator, is a primal impulse deeply embedded in the brain. Put simply, what we hear shapes who we are.

“Music really is the jackpot,” as Kraus, author of “Of Sound Mind,” puts it. She has conducted extensive research showing that music education helps boost test scores for low-income children. 

Music also helps us manage stress. Perhaps that’s one reason that offering more music and arts classes is also associated with lower chronic absenteeism rates and higher attendance, research suggests. Think of music education as lifting weights with your brain. It makes the whole apparatus stronger and healthier.

“Music is therapeutic because it helps us to regulate our emotions,” said Richter, who adds that a culturally relevant music curriculum can help engage a diverse student body. “It helps us to lower our cortisol levels. It helps promote relaxation. It helps us with focus and concentration. It also helps us with connection. Now more than ever, we know how important connection is, especially among our youth.”

In the post-pandemic era, these insights may well fuel the uptake of music classes in a state struggling with low test scores, but the implications for brain health actually go far beyond academic prowess and social-emotional well-being in childhood. 

Indeed, early musical experiences may impart a lifelong neuroplasticity, Kraus has documented. Studies suggest that a 65-year-old musician has the neural activity of a 25-year-old non-musician. A 65-year-old who played music as a child but hasn’t touched an instrument in ages still has neural responses faster than a peer who never played music, although slower than those of a die-hard musician. 

“What I would say to everyone who thinks about picking up an instrument: It’s never too late,” said Richter. “Even just practicing scales can help with cell regeneration. So I encourage adults to continue to learn music along the way, whether that’s picking up an instrument or listening to music, it’s always really important for brain development.” 

Music pricks up our hearts and minds, as well as our ears. Children must persevere to master a piece of music and collaborate to perform it in the spotlight. They must learn focus, patience and grace under pressure. That kind of electrifying shared experience, working as a community, is something new to many of them, experts say. 

“When music is more regularly incorporated as part of children’s everyday lives,” said Conti, “it can move the needle in their learning and development more effectively across many different parts of their lives: socially, emotionally, musically and academically.”

It’s the intangible effects of music education, the elements that can’t be reduced to data points and parameters, that strike Kraus as the most profound. Music builds a feeling of joy, a sense of belonging between musicians, and their listeners, that little else in our age of digital background noise can. 

“Music connects us, and it connects us in a way that hardly anything I know does, so it’s very, very important,” said Kraus. “We live in a very disconnected world. Depression, anxiety, alienation, the inability to focus, all of that is on the rise. Intolerance is on the rise. Music is a way to bring us together.” 

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