Geoff Johnson: Kids involved in music do better at learning

We’ve all had the experience of hearing a long-forgotten song over the sound system in a coffee shop or restaurant that sparks detailed recollections of a relationship from another time in our lives.

Recent studies have found that listening to music engages much broader neural networks in the brain than was first thought. These networks include brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions and creativity.

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Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the University of California Davis Center for Mind and Brain, was even able to create a model for mapping the tones of a piece of music as it moves from chord to chord and into and out of major and minor keys.

He discovered that the brain is able to sense these tonal progressions in the same region as it was experiencing the memories.

In the field of cognitive research (learning about learning), discoveries of connections between music and mathematics resulted in interest in the so-called Mozart Effect, which was first popularized in the early 1990s. In some studies, test subjects performed better on math-related tasks while listening to soothing but structurally complex music.

To the dismay of some math students, Mozart became a common background to solving equations.

Nevertheless, listening to music or playing a musical instrument can, according to Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, cause fundamental changes in a young person’s brain.

Rauscher has been involved in research on music and cognitive performance. She gives more credit to the playing of instruments than to passive listening.

In her 2006 article published in Educational Psychologist, Rauscher wrote: “Young children provided with instrumental instruction score significantly higher on tasks measuring spatial-temporal cognition, hand-eye co-ordination and arithmetic.”

Part of this, she said, is due to the amount of overlap between music skills and math skills. For example, the concepts that are necessary for understanding fractions and decimals are also highly relevant in understanding rhythm.

The link between the physical practice of music, or even just listening to music, and strong mathematical abilities is demonstrated in numerous other studies.

Kids who play a musical instrument or grow up in a musical environment can perform more complex arithmetical operations than those who do not.

Added to brain functioning for junior musicians is the slow work of practice, the attention to detail and the discipline it takes to learn an instrument — all excellent preparation for the practice involved in building strong math skills.

In 2013, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a recognized expert on music, neuroimaging and brain plasticity at Harvard Medical School, summarized the new research that suggested potential new roles for musical training.

Fostering plasticity in the brain, he said, has strong implications for using musical training as a tool with much broader implications in education — even for treating a range of learning disabilities.

“Listening to and making music,” Schlaug said, “is not only an auditory experience, but it is a multisensory and motor experience. Making music over a long period of time can change brain function and brain structure.”

In a 2011 study, Finnish researchers used an innovative technique that allowed them to study how the brain processes different aspects of music, such as rhythm, tonality and timbre (sound colour) in a realistic listening situation.

For this study, participants were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging while listening to a stimulus with a rich musical structure, a modern Argentinian tango.

The Finnish scientists discovered that listening to music activates a wider series of networks in the brain, and their method of brain mapping revealed complex dynamics of large-scale neural networks.

In 2007, researchers at Stanford University used brain imaging of people listening to a short symphony to gain insight into how the brain rationalized the confusing world of, among other things, learning.

Music, they found, engages areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating existing knowledge — all critical aspects of learning, or at least learning to learn, which is probably more important.

So when boards of education are contemplating balancing budgets by cutting band and music programs, maybe they should sit back, relax and listen to a little Mozart while reviewing the extensive research about the positive relationships between music and learning.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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