“CREATING A WORLD WHERE EVERY CHILD IS GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO SUCCEED AND REACH THEIR FULLEST POTENTIAL”
The human brain is hardwired for music. As babies, we are born with an ability to perceive and enjoy musical sounds, like our mother’s rhythmical voice and even various song melodies.1 By exposing children to music during the early years (ages 3-9), we can transform the developing brain, preparing it for academic and life success.
How can music change the brain’s architecture?
Let’s begin by examining the early life of Mozart, one of the most beloved and famous composers of all times. As a young boy, Mozart grew up in a household filled with music. His father, Leopold Mozart, was a respected composer and an accomplished violinist. At an early age, Leopold recognized his son’s musical genius and became greatly invested in his success, teaching and encouraging the love of music in his son, who was only 3 years old at the time. The young boy would practice composing by receiving a melody from his father and improvising the rest. Being raised in such an enriched musical environment, Mozart’s brain was shaped into a mind capable of inventing legendary symphonies that are still enjoyed around the world to this very day.2
Now let’s take a closer look at the effects of music on the architecture of the growing child’s brain. There are 3 ways by which music shapes our brain.
1. Music Makes Us Smarter
The Mozart effect suggests that listening to classical music improves cognitive abilities. While pregnant with my daughter, I came across several interesting yet controversial studies suggesting that once the auditory system is intact in utero, classical music might enhance brain development.3 Being a scientist mom, I decided to put it to the test. With speakers on my belly and loud Mozart music blasting, I began to relax and read a book. A few minutes later and to my amazement, my baby not only heard the music, but actually responded to it with a powerful kick that shook our entire king-sized bed. Even my dog laying nearby felt it! It is hard to say if my experiment worked but according to my pediatrician, it couldn’t hurt.
To this day, ancient civilizations still use songs and music in story telling, passing cultural values and traditions to the next generation. It is through the activation of brains structures involved in sound processing, memory, language, planning and movement, that we are creating a more efficient brain, one that requires less energy to complete cognitive tasks.
Studies in school-aged children attempt to answer the important question of how music changes the brain. Elementary school-aged kids with musical training demonstrated mature auditory pathways as compared to children of similar age lacking musical training. What is even more fascinating is that these superior auditory pathways help with the development of the rest of the brain, improving language and reading centers.4
To maximize the benefits of music and its impact on the brain, it is best to begin learning music before the age of 7, as this is the first sensitive period of pruning (deleting unnecessary synapses). You can think of synapses as a network of highways constantly being reconstructed to create efficient traveling routes of information (electrical impulses).
According to the scientific literature, there are 15 brain areas that are active during musical play and performance. Brain cells present within each brain structure will fire, activating a specific brain region to perform a music-related task.
Please refer to the chart below for a detailed list.
Note that music activates primitive brain structures buried deep inside the brain, responsible for memory storage, emotional regulation and movement control. In fact, these brain structures are so important for our survival that redundancies exist, as in the case of injury or disease, as a compensatory mechanism.
Image obtained from the University of Central Florida website article: Your Brain on Music. Click here for an interactive model of brain regions that respond to music.
2. Music Develops Creativity
Have you ever seen a Jazz musician in action? Known as master improvisers, Jazz musicians mesmerize audiences with their remarkable ability to predict which note comes next in a Jazz tune. In fact, musician brains have evolved to predict musical patterns through hours and hours of practice, refining existing pathways and integrating other brain regions involved in math and reading.
Through diligent practice, Jazz players have trained themselves to enter a state of meditative flow, one in whichtheir brains are in a creative mode of relaxation and artistry. Listening to a piece of music integrates 3 major brain regions: the prefrontal cortex, the auditory cortex and the emotional centers of our primative brain (amygdala, hippocampus). For a more detailed description of these structures, please refer to the table above. In sum, the integration of all 3 regions contribute to the development of higher level cognitive processes including undivided attention, suppressing distractions also known as inhibitory control and prediction of melody and rhythm in the child. A sophisticated musical brain with a superb ability to learn emerges and the process of neuroplasticity – the strengthening of existing brain connections – shapes the growing child brain.5
Curious about how to tap into the brain’s natural ability to renew itself and improve learning? Click here.
3. Music Builds a Strong Character
It takes hard work, blood, sweat and even tears to learn how to play a musical instrument at a higher level. Anyone who has ever tried to teach a young child to play a musical instrument knows that it is not an easy task. When attempting to teach my 3 year old daughter how to play a violin, I experienced some of the toughest parenting moments – my daughter’s high pitch screams of frustration, violin hitting the floor and even the occasional hit to the body with the bow. So why did I not quite? Are toddlers too young and immature to play delicate musical instruments? The answer is simple: I knew that I was developing grit in my child, similar to an athlete training for the world cup. By kind and loving discipline, perseverance and old fashioned hard work, we managed to work through the frustrating moments. I was priming her brain for musical sounds and shaping her character!
Professional musicians demonstrate unparalleled strength of mind and increased resilience as compared to non-musicians. This is because playing a musical instrument is a life-long journey filled with ups and downs, moments of stress, frustration and anxiety. By being exposed to these challenging circumstances, musicians develop good coping strategies and a tools for emotional regulation, as they receive ongoing support from fellow musicians. Bathing the brain in stress hormones during a music performance, for instance, desensitizes and hardwires it for discomfort.6
In the next section we will offer practical advice. We will explore the advantages of learning music at an early age and which type of musical skill is best for the developing brain. Note that not all musical experiences are created equal.
When Should a Child Begin Learning Music?
Any skill that is practiced repeatedly strengthens existing brain pathways and builds new ones, thus improving the overall performance of that particular skill. Interestingly, the longer and more intense music practice sessions are change the architecture of the brain more readily. This is the secret ingredient underlying Mozart’s musical success. Some may argue that a 3 or 4 year old child is too immature to handle the responsibilities of owning and playing a musical instrument. Yet the neuroscience literature demonstrates the incredible malleability of the young child brain in its ability to learn. In fact, the critical period, or time for auditory cortex development, ends by the age of 3–4 years in humans.7
Which Musical Skill is Best for the Growing Brain?
The countless benefits of music apply cross different musical modalities. Whether you are listening to music, playing music or dancing on the music, your brain is integrating key areas involved in sound processing, attention and movement. Since each type of musical activity (listening, playing, performing) requires a different skill set, needed brain structures are recruited to help perform the task. For instance, actively listening to a piece of music develops focus, concentration and attention, while music performance ignites a large portion of the brain, as shown in the illustration at the beginning of the article. Ultimately, to gain the greatest benefits throughout brain development, music performance is best.
How to Start Your Child’s Musical Journey?
Many schools have cut funding to music programs but you can still acquire the life-long benefits of music during your child’s early years by doing the following:
- Enrolling your child in a music group class (i.e. Kindermusik, Music Together)
- Joining a music studio for private lessons
- Joining forces with other parents to create an after school program in your community, teaching kids how to play an instrument and read music
It is never too late to learn how to play a musical instrument, even as an adult. Our neuroplastic brains is able to transform and mold itself based on environmental exposure to music.
Music chisels the child’s brain and allows for the optimal development of key brain structures by simultaneous activation. Similar to a body builder lifting weights to gain muscular strength, playing a musical instrument exercises the brain by improving communication between the left and right hemispheres, strengthening planning, focus and movement centers, thus leading to a more efficient, creative and resilient brain.
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Together we can change the world, one kid at a time!
1. Natalie Sarrazin. Music and the Child. Open SUNY Textbooks, 2016. 2. Piero Melograni. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography. University of Chicago Press, 2006. 3. Federica Moscucci, Walter Verrusio and Nicolo Gueli. Mozart Effect and Its Clinical Applications: A Review. British Journal of Medicine and Medical Research, 2015. 8(8): 639-650. 4. Assal Habibi et al. Neural correlates of accelerated auditory processing in children engaged in music training. Dev Cogn Neurosci, 2016. 21:1-14. 5. Mark Reybrouck, Peter Vuust and Elvira Brattico. Neural Correlates of Music Listening: Does the Music Matter? Brain Sci, 2021. 11(12): 1553. 6. Luc Nijs and Georgia Nicolaou. Flourishing in Resonance: Join Resilience Building Through Music and Motion. Front Psychol, 2021. 12: 666702. 7. Erika Skoe and Nina Kraus. Musical training heightens auditory brainstem function during sensitive periods in development. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 622.