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Monique Keiran: Studies show music benefits the brain

Hermann Nieweler loved jazz. His jazz club, a cosy venue that has operated on View Street for 29 years, was a labour of love for him.

Hermann Nieweler loved jazz. His jazz club, a cosy venue that has operated on View Street for 29 years, was a labour of love for him. It allowed him to host — and see — the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Dewey Redman, Loudon Wainwright III, Judy Collins and David Francey, and provided local musicians with a place to perform. It fed his desire to hear live jazz and to share the jazz experience with others.

Nieweler died last month, just as the Victoria International Jazz Festival was about to kick off. He was 79.

His commitment to his club speaks of music’s power to enrich people’s lives.

We groove and move to music. We listen. We appreciate. And some of us make and play music. It seems simple enough on the outside, but inside the black box we call the brain, much more goes on when the music starts playing.

Brain scans show that listening to music engages a sweep of different areas within the noggin. And if just listening to tunes does that, playing those same tunes on an instrument is like sending your brain to boot camp. Playing music exercises the parts of the brain that perceive and analyze sound, sight and touch.

It drills the parts of the brain that control movement, behaviour, decision-making and expression, as well as memory, emotion and reward. It also stimulates neuron development between the brain’s regions, strengthening neural pathways and making those connections more efficient.

Musicians’ memory storage, for instance, tends to be better and more effective than that of non-musicians. Brain scientists believe that the neural pathways that form and are regularly exercised when musicians play their instruments help their brains catalogue memories differently, encoding more neural cross-references to strengthen the memory and facilitate its later retrieval.

Scans of jazz musicians’ brains taken while the artists performed unfamiliar music, familiar tunes and improvisations on existing pieces have provided glimpses into secret workings of creativity.

Furthermore, studies with elementary-school students suggest that music education improves performance in other subjects. And some music-and-language exercises might help teachers identify students who have dyslexia and other learning problems that interfere with their ability to read.

Timely detection enables intervention and additional assistance early in a child’s school career — at least in perfect worlds, where additional teaching staff exists to step in and take action.

Music and language have long been twinned. Sure, we set words to music to have them sung back to us, but the association goes deeper than that. Language clusters words into phrases, requires rhythm and permits creative word combinations according to pre-determined patterns and rules.

Music creatively combines notes with one another in patterns and phrases, involving pitch, rhythm and rules and principles that resemble language’s grammar and syntax. Some languages also draw heavily on pitch or tone.

As with language, we “write” music and we “read” music.

Listening to someone speak and listening to music activate similar parts of our brains.

Our genes further confirm the language-music link. Many of the genes that give us the ability to acquire, process, modify and produce human speech are also active in songbirds. Songbirds use their species’ patterned whistles and chirps to communicate to each other their readiness and fitness to mate and their ability and willingness to defend their territory from rivals.

Researchers compared genetic activity in the brains of finches, budgies and hummingbirds with humans, and with birds and primates that can’t learn new vocalizations. In the human and songbird brains, more than 50 genes showed similar activity patterns. The same genes in other animals showed completely different patterns.

It makes you wonder, when a YouTube-featured cockatiel scats along with its blues piano-playing owner, how much of a workout is its brain getting? If its brain were scanned as it improvised, would it show the same patterns that indicate creativity on the fly — so to speak — that jazz musicians’ brains show?

Regardless, the music of songbirds is good for the heart. For most of us, music is good for the soul. Research shows music is good for our brains.

And, as Hermann Nieweler knew, sharing the music you love is just plain good.

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