Music Education Brain Research

Music Education and Brain Research

Music education in the public schools has been under attack for decades.  Although parents and teachers have advocated for more and better music programs, having seen the benefits to students, music programs are often the first programs to be cut when a school is under-funded. Neurologists are now conducting brain research that substantiates what we’ve intuitively always known about the advantages of early music education.

5th grade band concert

5th grade band concert – music education

The Brain and Music Program at USC

Researchers at USC https://dornsife.usc.edu/bci/brain-and-music/ have been conducting interesting experiments that will (hopefully) guide the education system in understanding how important music education is for students.

In October 2016, the USC researchers published a paper

“Neural correlates of accelerated auditory processing in children engaged in music training published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience”
(Volume 21, October 2016, Pages 1–14) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929315301122

detailing the brain activity of students with music training vs. students who had not received music instruction.  Like other studies, their results were conclusive: studying music changes the brain in significant and important ways.

Their conclusion is that

These findings provide evidence that childhood music training has a measurable impact in the development of auditory processes. Although the findings described here are restricted to auditory skills and to their neural correlates, such enhanced maturation may favor faster and more efficient development of language skills as well, given that some of the neural substrates to these different processes are shared. Our findings demonstrate that music education has an important role to play in childhood development and add to the converging evidence that music training is capable of shaping skills that are ingredients of success in social and academic development. It is of particular importance that we show these effects in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” (emphasis mine)

I have blogged about similar research in these posts:

Brain Imaging on Musicians

The Musician’s Brain

I’m wondering how much more empirical data we need to convince administrators that music isn’t just a fun “elective.” Music education is vital to the education of all students.

Healthy Brains Need Stimulation and Variety

Healthy Brains Need Stimulation and Variety

It seems that the field of neuroscience is exploding with research about how we learn, what our brains need to stay sharp, and how we can avoid memory problems as we age.

Everyone wants to have healthy brains. For many years, crossword puzzles and sudoku were the favorite pastimes of older adults. Music lessons, together with a healthy lifestyle, might be even better.

Consider this article:

Neuroscience says these five rituals will help your brain stay in peak condition

  1. Frequent small victories. Find ways to feel you have accomplished something – no matter how small – several times a day. I like to keep a to-do list but always include simple items that I can easily check off. Instead of writing “do laundry,” I will have smaller tasks on my list, like “gather laundry from kids’ rooms,” “start load of darks,” “hang laundry on line,” “take laundry off line,” “sort clothes,” “fold and put away.” Studying a musical instrument gives you the opportunity to make small gains everyday.
  2. Physical activity. The brain is healthier when our whole bodies are healthy. Take a walk, do a yoga video, ride a bike to the store. The exercise does not have to be intense or lengthy. Just 20 minutes is enough to keep the brain happy.
  3. Learn something new. The brain needs constant use to maintain its edge. This is why learning an instrument is extremely helpful for adults. Music study uses the whole brain. See blog posts “Brain Imaging on Musicians”  and “Practice Builds Better Brains” for more info.
  4. Consider your posture. An upright posture allows for more oxygen and has a subconscious positive effect on our bodies. Hunching, rounding the shoulders, and slouching in a chair inhibit learning and make us feel inferior. Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on this subject is fascinating. Most, if not all, music teachers will encourage good posture when playing a musical instrument.
  5. Get plenty of sleep. Our brains need time to recharge. Researchers have two hypotheses about why sleep is necessary. Some have suggested that rest is necessary for the brain to organize the day’s experiences. Others argue that the brain needs resting time to flush out toxins. The book “How We Learn” also asserts the value of good sleep habits.

You’re never too old to begin music study. My most mature student was in her 60s when she decided to take up flute. If you are already a musician, be sure to change up your practice routine and learn something new every day. Healthy brains equal a long, productive life!

healthy brains

stimulation and variety – he usually plays piano but decided to try the bass flute.

Grit for Musicians: Practicing and Parenting

Is Grit the Secret to Success In Music?

I first heard about Angela Duckworth and her research on “grit” on a Freakonomics podcast. Duckworth talks about how persistence, not talent, is the secret ingredient for success. It got me thinking about how grit translates to music, especially its application in practice.

What is grit?

According to Angela Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” It seems clear that studying music is a gritty activity. Learning to play an instrument is a long-term commitment if any success is to be achieved.

From the book review of Grit in Scientific American: (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/review-of-grit-the-power-of-passion-and-perseverance/)

In this standardized testing culture, Grit is a good reminder that an exclusive focus on ability and potential can distract us from the importance of other variables important for success.

Grit may be more important than talent.

There are plenty of musicians out there with natural talent. Some even have the almost mystical ability of perfect pitch. Yet not all people with perfect pitch become professional musicians. It seems that talent can kick-start a musician because it creates a positive feedback loop. Talent says, “I’m good at this. It’s easy. People recognize my innate ability.” But talent can also be a hinderance. When music practice becomes difficult (and it does get hard at some point for everyone), only the gritty will push through and learn new skills. Of course when a student is endowed with both talent and grittiness, the chance of success is high. As a music teacher, however, if I had to choose between a student with lots of talent or lots of grit, I would choose the grit. Every time.

Want to find out how much grit you have?

Take THE GRIT SCALE quiz

Even if you score low on the “grit scale,” the good news is that grit can be cultivated, even increased.

What do gritty people have in common?

By studying people who are particularly gritty, Angela Duckworth has observed four things the grit paragons display and cultivate:

grit in musicians

Cincinnati Symphony – paragon of grit

  1. Interest
  2. Deliberate Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

Duckworth observed that people who pursue one interest for long periods of time “learn to substitute nuance for novelty.” I love that. As a musician, I’m not constantly switching instruments. I’m delving more deeply into the repertoire of the flute and perfecting the craft of teaching. There is always more to learn about a subject.

Deliberate practice is something I have discussed many times on this blog. Brain research is helping us understand that some kinds of practicing are better than others. Good practice habits include being able to isolate a mistake and employ solutions to remedy it. Another “grit” researcher, Anders Ericsson puts it this way: “So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.”

How can parents help kids become more gritty?

As a parent (see my admission on this blog about being a Tiger Mother), I want my kids to grow up to be gritty. How do we foster resilience in kids? Perhaps studying music is one way to cultivate grit. When your child studies an instrument, there will be opportunities for improving grit (theirs… and yours!)

Don’t let your child quit music. Teach your child that playing an instrument is a long-term commitment. Everyone comes to a point when things get hard and quitting seems the only way out. Help your child understand that music, like many other pursuits, will seem really hard from time to time. Remind your child of other times they have been frustrated but persevered and overcame the challenge. If your child is just beginning to study an instrument and wants to quit, don’t give in! Set a reasonable time period (6 months – 1 year) after which you will discuss the possibility of changing instruments.

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an article “How To Teach Students Grit.” The author wondered about the role of grit in academic settings. One of the most interesting findings was the role of intrinsic motivation in achievement. Behaviorism, using rewards and punishments to change behavior, is proving to be a colossal disaster in the classroom. A 2011 study of behaviorism in New York public schools (“Financial Incentives and Student Achievement“) showed that incentives such as money had no effect on changing student performance.

In Dallas, students were paid to read books. In New York, students were rewarded for performance on interim assessments. In Chicago, students were paid for classroom grades. I estimate that the impact of financial incentives on state test scores is statistically zero, in each city. -Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

Behaviorism relies on the ability of external forces to change behavior. When students are motivated by rewards, it is called extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to or because they know it’s the right thing to do. As parents, we must be careful of using too many rewards, thereby discouraging intrinsic motivation.

I’ve discussed motivation in music in other blog posts (Motivation: Parenting and Practicing, Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), but if you are going to use rewards like a sticker chart or money to reward your child for practicing, do it for a short period of time.  Recitals, positive feedback, and continued success in music will foster intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is critical for finding purpose (see #3 in the characteristics of gritty people list.)

Be sure to show your child the world of art and music. Your child needs to see that he or she has a place in the arts, that she is part of something larger. Give them hope that there is more in the world of music than high school marching band. (Not knocking marching band– it’s awesome, but there’s so much more to discover.) A hopeful outlook is one of the hallmarks of a gritty individual.

A final thought

If grit is the secret to success in music, and music is the key to success in life, then grit and success have a direct relationship. The more grit, the more success. Not just in music. In everything.

Practice Research: study shows faster, better learning

New practice research suggests ways to make learning more efficient.

Thanks to cognitive researchers we are understanding more and more about how the brain processes information. A practice research study published in January 2016 by Pablo A. Celnik, M.D., looked at how modifications in practice routines can dramatically improve learning. ( http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/want_to_learn_a_new_skill_faster_change_up_your_practice_sessions )

A good blog article about the study can be found here:

Scientists Have Found a Technique That Helps You Learn New Skills Twice as Fast ( http://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-found-a-technique-that-helps-you-learn-new-skills-twice-as-fast )

In this study, subjects were tested on how quickly they could learn a new skill (moving a cursor on a computer.)

The volunteers were split into three groups, and each spent 45 minutes practising this. Six hours later, one of the groups was asked to repeat the same training exercise again, while another group performed a slightly different version that required different squeezing force to move the cursor.

The third group only completed the first training session, so they could act as a control.

At the end of the training period, everyone was tested on how accurately and quickly they could perform the new skill, and predictably, the control group did the worst after their one training session. But the surprise was that the group that had repeated the original training session actually did worse on the test compared to those who had mixed things up and trained in new areas – in fact, the group that modified their training did twice as well as those who’d repeated the original skill.

Did you get that? The group with the varied practice routine performed twice as well as the group that received a second training on the skill. It’s interesting to note that the groups that performed the best received a second training 6 hours after the first training.

The idea that varied practice leads to stronger learning is not a new one. The authors of the above study call this phenomenon “reconsolidation;” others call it “interleaving.” It’s not a new idea. In the book How We Learn, Benedict Carey points to two other studies, on badminton and beanbags, that show the same results.

 

Richard A. Schmidt and Robert A. Bjork, “New Conceptualizations of Practice: Common Principles in Three Paradigms Suggest New Concepts for Training,” Psychological Science, Vol. 3, No. 4, July 1192, 207-17

R. Kerr and B. Booth, “Specific and Varied Practice of Motor Skill,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 46, No. 2, April 1978, 395-401

What can musicians take away from these practice research studies?

  1. A varied practice routine is far more effective than doing the same thing over and over again.
  2. Small changes will yield large gains.
  3. Space out practice sessions to achieve maximum retention.

Ideas for varying practice can be found in several of my blog posts, including

Rhythm Spinner

Grouping Game

Bite Sized Pieces

Karate Chops

Musical Neurons

Musical Neurons

A recent study at MIT shows that there may be specialized neurons in the brain for processing music. These “musical neurons” are different than similar ones used to distinguish other sounds, like speech and environmental noises.

“Musical Neurons” Discovered in the Brain

“The implications of the findings are profound, suggesting that not only does musical aptitude and understanding have a specific seat within the brain, but that music may have played a crucial role in the evolution of the human nervous system.”

http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/news/study-discovers-musical-neurones-auditory-cortex-brain

Follow up studies are planned to determine whether the “musical neurons” are acquired over time or present at birth. It has long been understood that music and language develop around the same time in a child’s brain. Many children will sing before they can talk. Further, we know that music has a strong correlation to memory. Even as an adult, I sing the “Alphabet Song” while filing music to remember the order of the letters. It’s much easier for me to sing the ABCs than to recite them. Because of the important links between music and language, early music education is rocket fuel for the developing brain.

This study may be another step to understanding how music is essential for being human.

Perhaps there is something hard-wired in our brains for processing, feeling, and making music. Are these neurons present at birth? Are they more developed in musicians? Does this research prove the academic advantages of brain training through music? Stay tuned!

How We Learn – applications for musicians

I just finished reading How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey, 2014.

From a musician’s perspective, it has obvious applications for practice.How We Learn

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I totally geek out on brain science. It really blows my mind (ha!) reading about the new research on our grey matter. I am savoring Benedict Carey’s book and carefully sifting through it to find wisdoms for the practice room. Let’s begin with a quote from the book:

“If the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one. And it performs best when its quirks are exploited.”

In my work with music students, I have found that the best practice techniques are the ones that are unusual or humorous. For more on this topic, please check out my posts “Articulation Game,” “Rhythm Silliness,” and “Practicing Upside Down.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book begins with a discussion of how we learn at the neurological level. As scientific study of the brain is aided by new methods, our understanding of memory is deepened. Author Benedict Carey delves into new research on how the brain makes and stores memories. It appears that there are two sides to memory: storage and retrieval. While the brain has plenty of room to store all of our memories, not all of them can be retrieved. In order to retain information, the retrieval system must be strong. It is strengthened and made faster with use.

Some of the research on how the brain learns confirms what we already know, but some is truly new and revolutionary.

Research on Learning May Change How We Practice

  1. Practicing in frequent, short sessions is better than a single long practice. It’s more productive to have three 20 minute practice sessions than a single one hour practice. Similarly, music practice should happen everyday. Your teacher will notice if you do all of your practicing the night before the lesson because your retention of the information will be low.
  2. Memories are encoded with snippets from our environment. It will come as not surprise that we can recall things best in the same place we learned them. If I had a nickel for every time a student has said, “But I played the music so much better when I was practicing at home,” I’d be rich. In the teacher’s studio or recital hall, the conditions are different than the practice room. Musicians should either try to create situations similar to the performance while in the practice room (dress shoes, imagining the stage, etc.) or vary the practice environment (different locations, different times of day) to take advantage of the “context effect.”
  3. Repeating something a set number of times does not make you learn it. The number of repetitions is not important. You must practice correctly and deliberately. (See my blog posts on “Hearing vs. Listening,” “Research on Effective Practice Skills,” and “Concentration Exercises.”)
  4. Testing is good for learning. Yes, you read that right. I know that there is a huge backlash against “teaching to the test,” but the testing Benedict Carey purports in this book isn’t a high-stakes national standards test. Long range studies show that frequent testing can help retain skills (p. 93). For musicians, I would like to argue that performances are “tests.” Maybe we can even think of weekly lessons as “retrieval practice.” You can create additional opportunities for performance. More ideas on finding performance opportunities can be found in the blog posts “Motivation: Parenting and Practicing” and “Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective.” Flash cards are a proven strategy for improving memory. I have a great “Scale Game” that uses flash cards and a neat game to learn scales quickly.
  5. Take a break. The mind continues to work on problems after you have stopped actively thinking about them. Sometimes a creative solution to a problem will come to you in a flash of inspiration. However, “people don’t benefit from an incubation break unless they have reached an impasse.” (p. 128) So when you’ve worked really hard on a difficult piece of music and you’re feeling frustrated, go for a bike ride, take a nap, or do some math problems. The distraction might be what you need to get unstuck.
  6. Set goals. There are many reasons to set goals – I will talk about some of those reasons in a future blog post – but for learning, goal setting is important because it focuses the mind on the problem. This book describes the goal-oriented mind as having “tuned perception.” We are better able to zero in on the solution, and block out the unimportant information, when the goal has been set and we allow for “percolation.” If your goal for the week is to fix technical problems in a sonata, you may pay extra attention to the scale in the same key as the sonata or spend more time on a technical exercise related to the same difficulties.
  7. Vary your practice. Several studies have shown that motor skills are enhanced by practicing an activity many different ways. Not only will the skill be learned better but it will be able to be transferred to similar situations. It’s important also to make sure you practice different kind of exercises – scales, etudes, theory, improvisation – not just a single repertoire piece. “The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition.” (p. 164) My blog posts “Woodshedding: Grouping Game” and “Rhythm Spinner” offer some suggestions to help you vary your practice.
  8. Get plenty of sleep. We’ve only begun to understand how important sleep is to learning and future research will undoubtedly uncover more insights on the different stages of sleep, but scientists know that rest is important. Benedict Carey says, “I think of sleep as learning with my eyes closed.” (p. 212) Naps are showing promise in memory consolidation and integration. Just as eating a balanced diet will keep your body healthy, getting ample sleep is good for your brain.

What does research say about memorization?

How We Learn also looks at research on memorization. Granted, the scientists who create these experiments are asking subjects to memorize words, but I think that it is equally applicable to memorizing music. Psychologist Arthur Gates has spent his career trying to discover a good rule for the most efficient way to memorize. He asked the question how much time should be spent studying and how much time should be spent reciting? He found that the best ratio was 1/3 time studying and 2/3 time reciting. [Arthur I. Gates Repetition as a Factor in Memorizing (New York: The Science Press, 1917).] So, if you are trying to memorize a piece of music, play it with the music once and then twice trying to remember it without looking at the music. I’ll have more to say about this and the three types of memory in a future blog post.


It will take me time to integrate all of the information in How We Learn, but I find it seeping into my teaching already. At lessons this afternoon, I suggested that a student vary her practice routine in advance of a big performance.

A seed is planted. I’m curious how it will grow.

Essential For Being Human

Music is essential for being human.

Scientists are learning a lot about how music effects the brain, how it changes our cognition (see blog posts Better Brains and Brain Imaging). But that’s not the whole story. There’s something much deeper going on with music. It is central to every culture across the world and across history. Music is enjoyed by people of all classes, gender, and age. Those who do not play an instrument still love listening to music.

Leonid Perlovsky, visiting scholar at Harvard University, writes

Billions of people enjoy music; many feel that they can’t live without it.

Why?

It’s a question that has puzzled scientists and philosophers for centuries. 2,400 years ago Aristotle wondered, “Why does music, being just sounds, remind us of the states of our soul?”

In the 19th century Darwin tried to decipher if our ability to create music evolved by natural selection. Of all human faculties, only music seemed beyond understanding; flummoxed, he came to the conclusion that “music is the greatest mystery.”

Perlovsky has conducted research on the “greatest mystery” and believes the answer is that music helps us resolve cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is psychologist-speak for the emotional discomfort caused by believing two things, despite understanding that they cannot be true at the same time. The classic example is a lawyer who must enter a “not-guilty” plea for a defendant, even though the lawyer knows the person committed the crime. Cognitive dissonance effects us on a deeply emotional level and if not resolved, it can be paralyzing.

Read the whole article here: How Music Helps Resolve Our Deepest Inner Conflicts (https://theconversation.com/how-music-helps-resolve-our-deepest-inner-conflicts-38531)love the piano

Tom Barnes writes about Perlovsky’s research in this article:

Science May Finally Have Found Out Why Music Is So Important to Humans  (http://mic.com/articles/116300/science-may-finally-have-found-out-why-music-is-so-important-to-humans)

Barnes cites research that implies music has played an essential role in human evolution, especially in the following areas

  • Resolving cognitive dissonance (Perlovsky’s conclusion)
  • Modulating mood
  • Reducing anxiety and stress
  • Promoting social cohesion
  • Developing language
  • Physical healing

I’ve often wondered why so many songs are about love and heartbreak. Revisiting a painful breakup through music somehow feels good, but that doesn’t make any logical sense. I don’t enjoy thinking about the time I suffered from shingles. That was painful too, but I’m not going to write a song about it. The difference, of course, is that love is emotional. Love and heartbreak are two sides of the same coin, as are life and death. At the center of our existential angst is the knowledge that we have to embrace the duality of being human.

Music makes it easier to get out of bed and face the world every day.

Brain Imaging on Musicians

As brain imaging technology improves, so does our understanding of music’s effects on the brain.

Listening to music makes the whole brain light up. Playing music causes the neurons to fire even more brightly and faster. It’s easy to understand how musicians use the visual and auditory parts of the brain as well as the places that regulate motor coordination. However, musicians must also tap into the emotional, logical, and creative centers of the brain.

brain scans

brain imaging

My kids and I have enjoyed watching the cute, informative Ted ED video titled “How Playing An Instrument Benefits Your Brain” by Anita Collins.

Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain?

http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-playing-an-instrument-benefits-your-brain-anita-collins

As I was watching the video, I started to wonder if all of the arts engage our brains in similar ways. Anita Collins says that scientists have discovered that

the artistic and aesthetic aspects of learning to play a musical instrument are different from any other activity studied, including other arts.

It seems clear to me that all children would benefit from learning to play a musical instrument. Sure, many kids learn how to toot “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the recorder, but that’s just scratching the surface. Neuroscientists now know that kids’ brains are changed when they practice and perform a musical instrument.

Playing a musical instrument is good for kids, and it’s good for adults too.

In my private studio, I teach many adult students. Many of them report better mental acuity since beginning lessons. Older adults are encouraged to do keep their brains active by doing activities like crossword puzzles or keeping a journal. Brain games are thought to ward off memory disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease (https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/crossword-puzzles-alzheimers/). I wonder if playing a musical instrument might have even better results. Reading and writing activate discreet centers of the brain; the whole brain is highly activated by playing music.

Do you want your kids to excel in school? Perhaps your money is better spent on music lessons than a math tutor.

Do you want to stay mentally sharp? Dust off your old clarinet or learn a new instrument. It’s like taking your brain to the gym.