Music for the brain
Текст: Dinar Khayrutdinov | 2020-03-23 | Фото: | 2117
Wouldn't it be great if there were a tool that would allow a person to significantly improve their cognitive abilities, memory, develop their imagination and thinking – in a word, to really boost their own brain? Surprisingly, as numerous studies show, such a miracle recipe already exists, and it has been around for almost as long as human civilization itself. And it is nothing other than learning music. We had a talk about the benefits of musical education for the neurobiological development of the human brain with well-known Australian educator and researcher of the influence of music on the brain, Dr. Anita Collins.

– Anita, how did your research on the relation between music and brain development begin? What was your original interest? Has this interest changed over time and how exactly has it changed?

It all started when I was working as a regular music teacher. At some point I became very interested in understanding what happens in my students’ brains during their music classes. I thought that if I knew what was happening in their brains, maybe my teaching would become better and more effective. It was very important for me in order to improve my teaching, achieve better educational results. So I began to observe the behavior of my students, trying to figure out how to help them better grasp the learning material. Working at school, I used to see all the kids that got the prizes and awards at the end of the year. And every time they announced the top ten kids at the end of an academic year, at least seven or eight of them were kids who were actively learning music. And I always wondered why this was happening: whether it were smart kids that were drawn to doing music, or if it was music that helped kids with average abilities achieve things in their other academic areas.

So it all started with me asking myself two very simple questions: «How can I improve my methods of teaching music?» and «How does music help children perform really well in other subjects?» But this initial interest did change over time. If at first it was «How can I get better at what I do?», and then later it became: «This is some incredible research! I just have to share it so that its results can be used not only by scientists, but also by teachers, students and parents.» And I wanted to find out how to explain this research in such a way that, first of all, people who weren’t scientists could understand it, and, second, how they could use it to improve their own practice. In other words, the vector of my interest shifted from trying to understand how to improve children’s academic performance through music lessons to how to tell the world about these interesting studies and how these studies on the one hand reinforce certain things that we already know, and on the other hand challenge some other things we believe in.

© Hans Splinter / flickr


– In general, what significant studies are there in the field of neuroscience and psychology over the past decades that would show the effect that sounds have on human brain? What important discoveries have been made by scientists? What do we now know about this subject?

There is a huge amount of discoveries and studies in this field. I can’t give you an exact figure but there are definitely well over 500-600 studies that are being done. And we’ve reached the point where we’re doing large, randomized longitudinal studies. Most of them are that we take a large number of students and divide them into groups: for example, you have a group of kids who chose to do music and another group of kids who chose not to do music. Then we study and compare the academic performance, development, successes, and achievements of the students in these two groups. But the problem is that it is almost impossible to maintain the purity of the experiment: for example, if a group of children chose to do music, most likely they were enthusiastic about it, they probably had supportive parents, and they might have already had this musical advantage compared to other kids. So now scientists are looking for ways to conduct research by grouping children randomly. In one of these studies, there were 70 children, and they were randomly assigned either to a group where they did music lessons and learned to play various musical instruments, or to a control group where no such lessons were given. And in this case, we can be more confident about the reliability of the results.

Some of the big discoveries have been about understanding how we acquire language, regardless of whether it’s our first or second language. So, we now understand that we are born with our music-processing network, and the reason we know that is because that’s how we learn to speak any language, our brain uses the same mechanisms for that. At first we actually hear any language as if it’s music, and only later we start to hear the differences between them, we start to distinguish words and sounds and so on. That is, music and the mechanisms of its perception and understanding are present in human beings from the beginning! One of the biggest and most interesting recent discoveries about young kids is: we found this thing called «speech in noise». This refers to our ability not just to hear, but to distinguish certain sounds from a huge mass of noise. This is called the cocktail party phenomenon. Imagine that you are at a very noisy cocktail party, where music is playing loudly and everyone is talking, so there is a sea of scattered sounds and noises around you. At this point, you are trying to talk to someone, but how do you «block out» the interfering sounds in your head so that you can hear what the other person is saying? Now, children don’t really have this ability at first. It does not come immediately, and music training helps to develop it. This discovery is undoubtedly a very important step towards understanding how children learn to speak a language, because the ability to speak also implies the ability to separate sounds. We also found that children who learn how to read sheet music before they learn to read letters and words partially use the same neural network as for reading. In other words, learning music and learning a language are inextricably linked, and one supports the other. Reading music is more difficult than reading letters, so for children who have studied music before they’ve learned to read it is much easier to acquire the reading skill. Their brains have done something similar before, so they are already familiar with this process in many ways.

In addition, in neuropsychology there is a thing called executive functions: these are certain basic skills of managing your own brain, which we usually learn in childhood. These include decision-making skills, being able to make good choices, the ability to calm ourselves down when we’re angry, to control our attention and so on. Learning music helps to develop these functions very early to a high level, and I believe that this is what primarily helps children who learn music to do well in other subjects too. They are better at focusing on a particular current task, they have better control over their emotions, they are able to organize themselves, they can manage their time, and they are highly motivated to learn new things. We can talk about a huge number of different skills, with different areas of the brain responsible for them, but these tend to split into three main groups: 1) language; 2) executive functions and 3) social skills. And music is the biggest enhancement for all three.


Anita Collins' archive

Anita Collins with students in a musical class.


– Can you describe what happens in the human brain during music lessons? How different will this process be depending on one’s level of musical education (music school student, professional musician)?

One of the processes that is activated when learning music is that the three most important areas of the brain are becoming better connected to each other, they become more synchronized. These are brain areas responsible for visual perception, auditory perception, and movement control (i.e., the eyes, the ears, and the body). They connect in a way that they have to communicate extremely with a lightning speed, they have to be really synchronized, and they have to adjust very quickly to any new information that’s coming. And if you practice music regularly, you can significantly improve this connectivity and synchronization. When a six-year-old child picks up a violin and starts learning to play it, all these connection start to happen immediately. And the more this child plays the violin, the more neural connections will be formed in their head. The wider the road of information is, the more consistent the brain is. And, of course, these processes continue into adulthood: when a professional musician plays an instrument, the exact same thing happens in their brain. The only difference is that when you do 2 to 3 years of music training when you’re really young, it will permanently change your brain so that it has better connectivity, better synchronicity, better consistency. The brain of such a child will always have an increased ability to synchronize and exchange information between different areas, even if this person stops playing music when they grow up. When people in their 70s have their brains tested, and they have learned to play piano when they were 10, they have better brain connectivity even then, and even if they haven’t played it for the last 60 years. That is, the changes that occur in the brain in childhood are permanent. But if you continue to practice music in adulthood, your brain’s connectivity and performance will be even higher! It’s like doing exercise or sports: if you keep doing it, you will continue to improve and keep in good shape.  

— Are there any differences in the effect music has on the brain depending on which instrument a person learned to play (piano, harp, trumpet, drum and so on)?

Yes, there are differences, of course, and it all depends on the specifics of a particular instrument, although it is obvious that similar instruments (for example, the woodwinds: clarinet, flute, oboe) will have a very similar effect on brain development. Everything I said in response to your previous question happens regardless of what instrument you are learning to play. And the differences stem from the specific properties of a particular instrument: for example, it is known that drummers have an increased ability to hear a single sound, distinguishing it from everything else — say, the sound of the hi-hat — while continuing to hear all the other sounds as well. In addition, they are very good at doing several things at the same time. The only other group of musicians who have the same ability is the organists, because they use both their hands and feet by pressing the pedals of the organ.

Pianists, as a rule, have an amazing level of hand control and absolutely incredible coordination. But what’s interesting is that they’re not very good at the social part of music-making, because they’re so used to keeping their own tempo that they don’t really know how to keep tempo with something else, and that connects to the social skills. Violin players, on the contrary, are usually much better at social skills because they often play in a group or in an orchestra. But another thing about violin players is that they mostly play high sounds, so they struggle to define lower sounds and figure out which one is which.

Thus, playing each instrument has both pros and cons. But, naturally, in general it’s all beneficial, and playing any instrument is always better for your brain than not playing one.

© Andrija Radojevic / unsplash

— What about learning to sing? Does it also affect the brain, or is it just learning to play instruments that affects it?  Is there any difference in this effect?

Scientists often talk about this triangle – a triad of auditory, visual, and motor skills. The one that’s missing from the triangle for singers or at least isn’t used as much is the motor/body part: vocalists don’t use their arms or legs (unless they also dance while they sing). And the brain does not have to synchronize different areas in the same kind of way as when playing musical instruments. In addition, vocals are not as good at developing analytical skills and logical thinking. But there is a distinct advantage to singing as well: singers get a much better sense of community because in vocals synchronization with musicians or other singers is extremely important. Some studies have shown that when people sing in a choir, their heartbeats will actually synchronize. So, that sense of actually being together doing something is real inside our bodies. But ideally an instrumentalist should also learn to sing and a singer should learn to play a musical instrument.

— What about just listening to music? How much influence does that have, if any? How is this influence different from what happens when learning to play or sing?

There are a lot of similarities between music playing and music listening. Generally listening will give you all the things I’ve mentioned but just to a lesser degree. And again, the auditory-visual-motor triangle doesn’t really come into being here, because the eyes and the body are not really involved when listening to music (the exception, again, is dancing). At the same time, listening to music is very important for well-being, calmness and mindfulness. When we listen to music, our bodies develop physiologically, and our brains develop emotionally. But it hasn’t been found to have quite the same effect as learning to play a musical instrument has.

— Different people enjoy different musical instruments and genres: some people like the sound of a violin or a flute, while others prefer heavier sounds such as drums or electric guitars. Some enjoy classical music, while others only listen to rap or rock. Is there any difference here? Is there a difference in the effect different frequencies may have on the brain? Or does it really depend on the individual?

This question has been researched quite a lot and in detail, but so far scientists have not been able to come up with anything concrete, because every human is different, and every human makes choices of genres and styles of music for different reasons. Much depends on the person’s country, culture, nationality, family in which they grew up, their family or friends: there are too many variables here to be taken into account in a scientific study. And musical tastes also change through our lives, so it is not possible to track all these changes.

One thing is for certain though: musical taste is a highly individual and subjective thing, so some piece of music that one person enjoys and it gives them chills might do absolutely nothing for another person. But there is also another thing: music contains a large amount of information, and if you can somehow objectively distinguish between different genres and styles, then it would be by the amount and density of this information. Classical music has lots of information because it changes all the time, and classical pieces are usually longer than popular songs, and there are many more instruments involved. While an average death metal piece might have less information in it. This does not make this genre better or worse than classical music: it’s just that this kind of music makes the brain work less hard to understand it. But sometimes we want something hard to figure out, and sometimes we want something we’re familiar with that would make us feel comfortable. So, musical choices are very individual, and we don’t yet have a way of measuring how they affect the brain.


Anita Collins' archive

Anita Collins while playing in the orchestra.

— In the Internet one can find various stories about the impact of music on humans and animals. For example, one such story says that when listening to Mozart’s music, cows’ milk yield increases and that some farms even practice this on purpose. Are such stories true? Can you think of any similar examples?

Yes, there are many examples of this, and I personally find it fascinating that music, which is essentially just a sequence of organized sounds, can affect living things: humans, animals and even plants. There are lots of stories about it, and people are saying about changes that happen when exposing plants or animals to music, and any changes that happen are indeed important to acknowledge, so that we can study them scientifically. But according to scientific methods, we have to take out all the many variables and accurately measure the time, the degree of these changes and a lot of other things. Therefore it is often very difficult to prove scientifically that, for example, the increase of yield was because of music, and not for any other reasons. But at the same time I do think that sceintists start using music more and they’re getting creative and adventurous, and they’re often getting great results.

But generally, if music makes the cows have more milk, then why not keep playing Mozart to them? At the very least it won’t harm them in any way. But would they respond the same way to another piece of music? That’s a different question. You might conduct an experiment: play them a pop song and see what happens. So this is a really interesting area, but not the one that research has quite got into yet.

— Is it possible to say that music (for example, some of its individual genres) can have not only a positive, but also a negative impact on a person’s development, on their psychological state? On their mood?

You know, the only research I can think of immediately is not a study done with typical humans, but it was done with mentally ill people and people who were suffering from depression. We often use music as something to make us feel better, to pep us up, but sometimes we listen to music which takes us into the depth of an emotion. Mentally healthy people can usually feel that deep emotion (such as sadness or melancholy, for example) safely and then come back out again and return to their normal lives. But people who suffer from depression, according to that study, listen to music solely to go down into their depressive states again and again, and music can keep them in this state for a very long time, which of course is often detrimental to the already weak mental health of these people.

Anita Collins' archive

— Let’s talk about the importance of musical education for pre-school and primary school children. What skills does it help to develop? How effective will the influence of music on a child’s brain be depending on what age they start learning music at?

There’s something called the “sensitivity period”, which is between 0 and 7 years of age. For any child, this is a critical stage of learning, because at the end of this stage, a process called «neural pruning» occurs, which is shutting down of any neurons and synapses that we don’t need so that there is more space for some more learning. This is one of the reasons why we don’t have many memories before the age of seven. This is why early music training is so important: it helps the brain wire really effectively the first time through its learning process. So, things like keeping the beat, clapping to the beat, walking to the beat, singing in time, playing musical instruments, moving to music in deliberate ways are quite common in teaching young children – these exercises help the brain to wire. Thus, I believe that it’s vital that the first acquaintance of a child with music occurs before the age of 7. And ideally it should start from birth: when mom and dad sing the newborn baby songs, and then the baby hears lots of sounds and gets to experiment with sounds, to play with musical toys, etc. – all that is really important for brain development. And then there’s the next step after the age of 7, and if a child has a really good musical education at that age, their brain becomes very well-wired for learning everything. It is also very important to learn how to perform music in front of an audience. The brain gets the most benefit when a person does not just learn to play music, but also performs – the process of preparing for a performance and the performance itself are really important too.

So, ideally, music education should start at birth and continue into adulthood. By the way, one of the very good periods to start learning a musical instrument if you’re an adult is between 40 and 50. Because I think that’s the period when our brain starts to shut down because of the stress and aging. So this time is a good time to start learning again to prevent the early aging.


Anita Collins' archive

Anita Collins with Australian singer and musician Guy Sebastian.

— Do scientists know how close the relationship between learning music and developing other skills and abilities is? For example, if a child has a talent for math and parents want them to become a mathematician, can you recommend that they, for instance, should also play the piano, since it contributes to the development of mathematical abilities?

Yes, there has been research that pointed to mathematical abilities and other abilities related to logical and analytical thinking. What we know for sure is that music training makes the brain really well-wired, synchronized and ready for learning, so mathematics can be just a part of that learning. It has been shown that, if a kid learns music, they have a very positive neural development, which then applies to what might be science, mathematics or literature – anything really. That is, the child develops an increased ability to study any subjects. In any case, practicing music is always going to be helpful, it’s never going to be harmful. So, one of the best things that I think parents can give their children, confident that it would help in some way, is musical learning.

— How do you interact with educational institutions? Do you have any joint projects with them? Could you give us a few examples of how you were able to change some schools’ or colleges’ attitude to music, or how you could change the attitudes of some particular teachers or parents?

I either work with one single school or an entire school system (schools are united into so-called systems here in Australia), which might be around 80 schools, or I work with entire states, which might be 250 schools. And depending on what they need, I do different kinds of things. In many schools, I work with educational programs for six-year-olds. We pay special attention to the connection between music and reading, as well as how to combine learning these two things in one class. In some other schools, I train teachers so that they can confidently deliver pre-school music education without being musicians. I also work with whole states, working with both early childhood teachers and instrumental teachers as well. I get them to understand the research, and here I have a couple of focus areas. One is meeting the principles of schools, who have quite a lot of control over what their schools do, so I go on and speak to them about what their schools might need. And the other is that I speak to teachers about neuroscience so that they can then go to their own schools and use this knowledge. Besides, I do a lot of writing and quite a lot of video production too, and in those videos I speak about the research but in such a way so that audience will understand. I talk to parents and education officers as well.

— What do you plan to focus on in the future, in the next 10-15 years? Do you have any ideas about doing some new research or starting some projects?

Now I am very interested in opportunities to bring this activity to the international level, to spread this knowledge around the world, and I have already completed several projects abroad. I recently finished a new book that will be released outside of Australia in September. The book is intended to help parents to understand the relationship between music and their children’s brain development. And my ultimate goal and big dream is to have what we may call Bigger Better Brain schools – schools that take on teaching music as a neuroscientific development. And it’s not going to be just music classes but the school works across all subjects that the students will learn, and this idea will be integrated into everything the children do or learn.




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