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Music and Brain Science

Updated: May 27, 2021

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

Are you incorporating music in your classrooms, cafeteria, and hallways? Perhaps it is piped into the school offices?


Music’s Effects. What effect does music have on the brain? With the help of neuroscience, researchers now have a clearer view inside the skull, which has led to  interesting discoveries as well as telling questions. Scientists have identified neural pathways that are almost exclusively music-activated. These discoveries have helped us formulate additional hypotheses about the importance of music. Comparing research and knowledge today to our understanding about music over the past century, we can begin to further appreciate the potential of music to open doors to learning. For many years, music was considered to be a catalyst for a hodgepodge of different brain areas that somehow worked together to process sound and impact our emotions. We knew that certain tempos and tones might create a sense of sadness, or romance, or excitement. We knew that jazz might make us feel edgy, and that we could perhaps be lulled to sleep by a lullaby. Each year we gain more specific information about which areas of the brain are impacted by various components of musical creation and appreciation.

Throughout Life. Music provides measurable benefits not only for the developing childhood brain, but also for the duration of the brain’s aging process. In 2003, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug and colleagues found that after only 15 months of music instrument training, the brains of young children displayed growth in areas related to auditory and motor improvements. A further study by Hanna-Pladdy and Gajewski in 2012 found that musical instrument practice for more than 10 years helps to preserve cognitive functioning through life, and that if musical skills acquisition is started at age 9 or younger it provided even more brain benefit in old age. Overall, it appears that learning musical instrument skills early in life and continuing the practice of those skills can enhance cognitive functioning even as the brain functioning of peers is starting to decline. Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay’s 2011 study also showed a strong relationship between cognitive functioning in advancing years and the amount of time participating in music throughout life. Excitingly, the results point to benefits of early and continuing participation in music that are independent of the amount of any other education received. Unexpected Impact on Communication. Why is music so helpful? Many studies show exactly what you might expect.

  1. Playing music involves coordination (for example strumming a guitar with one hand and pressing various strings to reach the correct notes with the other).

  2. It also involves keeping rhythm, adjusting the volume, and the feedback cycle of listening to what one has produced and making adjustments (i.e. speeding up, slowing down, adjusting the volume).

  3. Musicians also learn to translate symbols on a page into motor movements.

Different areas of the brain are involved in each of the above activities. Music is generally performed with and for others. Imagine the complexity of learning to play a cello, for example, while keeping rhythm, remembering fingering, reading notes, watching a conductor, and listening to the violins, the trumpets, and the percussion instruments, while also attending to the other cello players so that you can be part of the team. A high level of awareness (or in CEI terms “consciousness”) is needed to make adjustments within the group.

It’s no surprise that music is a complex and multi-sensory experience. What might be unexpected, though, is how intertwined these skills are with everyday communication. Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, published a review in 2014 that highlights the effects early musical training has on the ability of the adult brain to quickly and accurately discern consonants in conversation. The adults with early musical training outperformed the non-musician adults in this activity. Amazingly, the participating musical adults had not played a musical instrument in 40 years. Those who had trained the longest, though, (between 4 and 14 years), did respond the fastest. When considering how easy it is to feel isolated and lonely in situations where only portions of conversations can be understood, the value of honing auditory skills is apparent.


In this difficult time of limited funding and broad-reaching educational goals and requirements, it might be tempting to put music classes in a frivolous or “not essential” category. Schools that have eliminated music classes in their rush to increase academic achievement have done just this. However, music has been with us for a long, long time. Sound, rhythm, coordination, listening and performing are part of our everyday lives. If you could wave an educational conductor’s wand and orchestra school improvement, how would your symphony sound? How would children and youth string notes together? Where would an “ear for music” fall in your consideration of student strengths? Where would “performs well with others” be on your checklists?  What high notes would you hit with the scores you develop?


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