Most of us have heard that learning music builds a better brain and indeed, there have been lots of comparative studies over the years, to show that children who have had music lessons from an early age do better in school than peers who don’t do music.
So, how does music build a better brain?
Playing a string instrument is thought to be the most complex activity known to mankind and an ideal vehicle for improving all round ability. The whole brain is activated, co-ordinating the maintenance of good posture, fine motor control and large movements, with right and left hands performing different activities at the same time. Memory, listening ability and kinaesthetic sense are needed, in order to judge and adjust tone, pitch and rhythm. Seeing and interpreting the musical score, evaluating and thinking ahead are all vital. All of this is going on, while the player is involved in the emotional and aesthetic process of telling a story.
As for wind instrumentalists, It is also worth considering that 80 to 90% of the brain’s motor control is devoted to the hands, mouth and throat. By developing fine control in those areas, a child is stimulating the entire brain. Pianists have to cope additionally with reading and performing several melodies at once.
The right hemisphere of the brain is specifically excited, when listening to melodies, or playing by ear, whereas the left hemisphere is stimulated, when reading and understanding musical scores. It is not surprising that those who learn a musical instrument before the age of 7, develop a larger and more efficient corpus callosum (the bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the brain).
Yes, but HOW does music build a better, more efficient brain?
Our brains are composed of Grey Matter, nerve fibres, or Neurones which carry electrical messages and White Matter or Myelin, which is a special insulating fat. Myelin helps electrical impulses to travel fast and stops the electricity from leaking out of the neurones.
Myelin is therefore crucial to learning. EVERY time a nerve is fired, for ANY reason, little fat producing cells, called Oligodendrocytes, wrap themselves round the neurones and leave behind a microscopic layer of fat. With repeated firing, the fat layer round the nerve becomes thicker and thicker, till the little neural pathway has been transformed into a super fast highway.
Warning! Think before you practise!! More myelin is wrapped round EVERY neural circuit EVERY time it fires, even if the firing is causing you to play a wrong note or think a negative thought. Only disease and ageing can cause a well myelinated circuit to break down. It is a sobering fact, that you can’t dismantle a “wrong” myelinated skill; you have to build a “correct” replacement highway, which is miles better than the old one. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of doing. So, when learning any skill, it will save you a lot of time, energy and heartache if you stop and prepare carefully before acting.
It’s not just an accident that Suzuki stated that “Knowledge is not a skill. Knowledge plus 10,000 repetitions is a skill.” So, Music builds a better brain, does it? Not unless the 10,000 repetitions are correct!
There are hundreds of easy strategies that you can use to help your child to learn how to practise in a way that stimulates brain growth. Have a look at http://www.musicinpractice.com/grand-practice-adventure/ and find out how to have a great time achieving those 10,000 correct repetitions together.
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