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Music as a brain exercise

Updated: Jan 16, 2022

I recently viewed various videos regarding the correlation of music with human cognitive activity. As a musician and teacher, many of the ideas verbalized came as no surprise; however, it was none the less gratifying to formally discover through the research of scientists, musicians, neurologists, and teachers. I’d like to share YouTube links to four informative videos, with a few comments of what stood out for me as I listened to them.

The first video serves as a short and summative introduction (upon which subsequent videos expand). One benefit of performing music is that the process utilizes all of the brain (while listening to music involves fewer parts of the brain with less activation.) Additionally, the longer musicians practice, the larger their brain’s “grey matter” develops.

Other benefits include the prevention of dementia, enhanced recovery from brain injuries, the increased ability to focus, and combating anxiety and depression. Listening to music one enjoys also releases dopamine, a hormone causing feelings of pleasure and calm.

The second video is a TED talk by music educator Anita Collins, who highlights how music can improve the quality of education of young students. Music improves cognitive function, specifically memorization ability, learning language, mental health, the capacity to moderate emotions, and ability to solve complex problems.

Physically, brains of musicians versus non-musicians look different. Dr. Collins also noted the process of learning a new subject can be uncomfortable, and learning music helps students become more comfortable with the learning process. She closes with the hope that music will have a profound, positive influence on the next generation of children and young people.

In the third video (also a TED talk), neuroscientist John Iversen focuses upon a specific program in partnership with the San Diego Youth Symphony. The program uses a rhythmic study based upon feeling the beat to analyze how students improve in their studies over time. Struggling students catch up to the others and thereby gain confidence - his main point is that music can be a positive equalizer and is a vital part of the overall educational experience.

The final video I list is also my favorite. A string quartet on stage also demonstrates how effectively contrasting music can change the perceived mood of a video (beware of sharks!). An implication I thought of while viewing this video is that music can in a manner speaking, regulate our subconscious emotions and release built-up energy we have. It’s a natural way to care for our hearts and minds, with an endless supply of enjoyment and expression.

While musician and neuroscientist Alan Harvey reiterates music’s effects of promoting positive hormones and fighting again learning disorders and dementia, he goes a step further citing that music facilitates children’s social development of any cultural background. He also posits collective musical performance fosters a stronger emotional connection apart from spoken language alone.

As I sit here writing this on Christmas Eve, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet plays in the background. I recall the first time I saw a glimpse of it, on television at a Christmas Eve party as a very young child. I was instantly captivated by its beauty - of colorful costume and set, elegant dancers, and above all, music so richly textured, I couldn’t turn away from it. I’m sure my brain was “firing on all neurons” that evening. And while many know the Nutcracker is based on the tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, I certainly experienced a deeper emotional connection with Tchaikovsky’s music to accompany the story.

My favorite section of the ballet begins the close of Act I, “Pine Woods on a Snowy Evening”. I leave a link for you below, with best wishes for a Happy New Year:

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