Neuroplasticity has taught us that music is among the strongest neural-connecting activities and can aid in boosting IQ, memory retention, recovery from brain maladies, and improve learning in math, science and other subjects.
When viewed through an fMRI scanner, tasks such as reading or math light up particular areas of the brain relevant to that task alone. But when people are intently listening to quality music, multiple areas of the brain light up at once, areas not even directly related to music. Millions of connections are formed as the brain processes music.
Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain simultaneously, especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices. It increases the volume and activity in the brain’s corpus callosum, which is the mass of nerve fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres. Consequently, the brains of musicians adapt to the challenges involved in learning and playing an instrument by creating a larger corpus callosum. It is like building brain muscles through music exercise! This allows messages to get across the brain faster and through more varied routes.
Learning to play an instrument has been shown to raise the brain’s cognitive skills. It can even increase IQ by seven points in both children and adults. Every time musicians pick up their instruments, thousands of connections are firing all over their brains. Music becomes the gateway to increased brain power for all areas of learning, including math, science, and memory.
I have a friend who sings publicly with his very young daughters. This past Sunday, the baby, about nine months old, was loudly humming on tune long after the congregation finished the song. How can a baby that can’t talk stay on key? Her sisters, too young to go to school, can sing harmony. How did that happen? It is commonly thought that it is just in their genes—you are born with it or you are not. Now we know better. It was brain grooving/synapse connections that made it happen. The little singers’ daddy was raised in a home where all his siblings played instruments and sang, but neither Mom nor Dad have any musical ability. This unmusical mom decided that her children would be musicians. So she opened the door to the field of music by providing teachers and instruments, organizing demanding practice, and encouraging them to play and sing together. That is how a generationally musical family started. Supermom didn’t know it, but she was also raising her family’s IQs for generations to come (more on that later).
The “gift” of perfect pitch is imparted before most parents think it is possible. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize the pitch of a note or to produce any given note at will. It is estimated that from one to five people per 10,000 have a sense of absolute pitch. Through the study of neuroplasticity, researchers have discovered that a baby’s brain is more malleable to the perception of pitch than at any other stage in life. It is in those first two years that children exposed to quality music develop perfect pitch. You will remember that up until about one year of age, an infant can distinguish between all 800 sounds that are made by all the languages on earth. That ability diminishes thereafter. 1
“Whom shall he teach knowledge? …them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts” (Isaiah 28:9).
The lack of musical ability doesn’t seem like such a loss until you read the academic scores and statistics of countries and individuals that have developed musically. Now we know it is worth a little effort to introduce your baby—even your womb baby—to quality music.
The academic scores of children increase significantly when music is part of the curriculum, as is evidenced in several nationwide experiments.
In a study of 17 countries examining the academic scores of 14-year-old science students, it was found that the top three countries—Hungary, the Netherlands, and Japan—all included music in their curriculum from kindergarten through high school. In the 1960s, Hungary noted the higher academic achievement of students enrolled in their “singing school”, and sensibly responded by providing the Kodály method of music education for all their students. This method uses a child-developmental approach that introduces skills according to the capabilities of the child. Today, there are no third graders who cannot sing on pitch and sing beautifully. In addition, the academic achievement of Hungarian students—especially in math and science—continues to be outstanding. The Netherlands began their music program in 1968 and Japan followed suit, having observed the success of these two countries. 2
It has been disclosed that almost all the foremost technical designers and engineers in Silicon Valley are practicing musicians. Wow! That says a lot!
The famous Donald Hebb, one of the earliest pioneers of neuroplasticity and neuropsychology, coined the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Music fires basically every area of the brain, and in its wake, millions of new connections are formed. Every one of those connections increases brain power by making more sections of the brain available to process more information.
Listening to music requires no effort, but becoming a musician requires diligence, self-discipline, and perseverance. Are you or your child up for the task? As the research has shown, it is well worth the effort.
When we perform various motor skills—walking, typing, etc.—we utilize limited parts of the brain. But, as stated earlier, when we perform or listen to quality music, we are using many different parts of the brain in both hemispheres. Music has the power to change how we think, feel, and perform. It even has the power to heal.
Music stimulates many different areas of the brain all at once:
According to Piano Central Studios, “The corpus callosum is the part of our brains that connects the right hemisphere to the left. It allows both sides to communicate with each other, and is responsible for eye movement and helping us maintain our balance.”
They continue by saying, “…the corpus callosum is the communicator for the brain. Current research from Anita Collins suggests that when our students play their instruments, they are working on their fine motor skills. Both parts of our brain are responsible for these fine motor skills. Additionally, as the right side of the brain is responsible for the creative process, while the left side is responsible for our linguistic prowess, musicians use both of these hemispheres simultaneously when they create. Consequently, musicians adapt to these challenges by creating a larger corpus callosum, much the way an athlete would grow his or her muscles.” 3
As previously stated, at 18 weeks gestation, a baby in the womb is able to hear external sounds. It has been observed that after birth, the baby responds differently to music that was played when he was still in the womb. This implies that he was experiencing the music and developing neural connections relating to music even before birth. In the first years of life, this child will be well equipped to learn music. Pity the infant exposed to rap and most pop music.
Dr. Kathleen M. Holland agrees, “Human responsiveness to music begins in the womb. Babies are brought into the world with the ability to detect beat.”4
Introducing your sweet womb baby and newborn to quality music is one of the easiest and smartest things you can do for your child’s developing brain. When he is in the crawling stage, buy a simple instrument and encourage your child to play. Lastly, find a way for him to take lessons. This will enable a fuller development of his potential.
Schools around the world are now using music to set a mood and inspire children to participate in cleanup or fun activities. Teachers know from experience that singing cute, short songs like “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” to children provoke them to immediately focus their attention. Only speaking to the children would arouse a limited part of the brain, whereas music stimulates a web of responses from many places in the brain. The more connections made, the more learning there will be, and the greater the cooperation in doing routine chores. Have you ever noticed that military troops sing cadence as they march and drill? The practical results were appreciated long before anyone knew anything about the brain.
Dopamine levels in the brain rise when pleasurable music is playing. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released when a person experiences pleasure. It helps regulate attention, working memory, and motivation. Dopamine is found to be low in ADHD brains. Obviously, if we can increase dopamine in a child, we can improve mood, focus, and participation. “Music shares neural networks with other cognitive processes,” says Patti Catalano, a neurologic music therapist at Music Works Northwest. “Through brain imaging, we can see how music lights up the left and right lobes. The goal of music therapy is to build up those activated brain muscles over time to help overall function.” 5
As your child sits on the floor playing, you can greatly enhance his brain by quietly playing quality music in the background. Any positive stimulus, especially involving multiple senses, causes the brain to respond by building new connections, and new connections mean a bigger brain. Bigger is better.
PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) did a study that enlisted 39 infants (nine months old) in social play, some with waltz-type music and some without. After twelve sessions, the infants’ temporal information processing was assessed in speech as well as music using magnetoencephalography. The brains of the babies who were exposed to music exhibited enhanced neural responses in the area of music and speech—the auditory and prefrontal cortices. This showed that the music had been instrumental in awakening in the brain those patterns that are utilized in speech and music.6
In summary, this means that exposing your newborns and young children to softly playing, quality music will improve their speech as well as their musical ability. Exposure to good music will expand your child’s brain to be able to accommodate new areas of information. Music is a healthy stimulant for many areas of knowledge.
There are many expressions of music, but if it does not include pattern and structure, the brain registers it as random noise, not music. On brain scans, it is easy to discern music from noise because the brain doesn’t know what to do with noise. It must be patterned and have consistent structure to be interpreted as music. The brain finds music easy to encode. Music makes us smarter as seen by researchers at the University of California Frances H. Rauscher, PhD, and her colleagues. They conducted a study with 36 undergraduates from the department of psychology who scored eight to nine points higher on a spatial IQ test after listening to ten minutes of Mozart. One of the researchers, Gordon Shaw, said, “We suspect that complex music facilitates certain complex neuronal patterns involved in high brain activities like math and chess.”7
Music is influential from a very early age—even womb babies respond to Mozart. Thomas Verny, in his book The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, cites scientific experiments showing that fetuses preferred Mozart and Vivaldi, even in the earliest stages of pregnancy. He reported that fetal heart rates steadied and kicking decreased, while other music, especially rock, “drove most fetuses to distraction.”8
Some “music” is noise. Noise does not help in the release of soothing neurotransmitters like dopamine. Research in animal models has shown that exposure to noise can induce stress and impair both cognition and memory by suppressing long-term potentiation in the hippocampus.9 There are forms of sound that have been referred to as music, but instead of releasing happy neurotransmitters, they actually stimulate the release of chemicals that are detrimental to the brain. Noise is bad, but loud noise is worse. It is extremely debilitating to the brain as well as the ear.
“Prolonged exposure to loud noise [or even white noise from things like fans and motors] alters how the brain processes speech, potentially increasing the difficulty in distinguishing speech sounds, according to neuroscientists. Exposure to intensely loud sounds leads to permanent damage of the hair cells that act as sound receivers in the ear. Once damaged, the hair cells do not grow back, leading to noise-induced hearing loss.”10
According to Parenting and Child Health, “Because of their thinner skulls, babies and young children are at greater risk from loud sounds than are adults. If at all possible, avoid exposing young children to loud noises, such as car racing events or loud music, as the damage could last all of their life.” Even noise from power tools, fans, kitchen appliances, electronic entertainment, and general racket are all detrimental to the brain.11
Sound travels in waves that keep moving. When a person is in a closed-in area where the sound waves are trapped, there is a greater possibility of damage. Putting anything in your ear (earbuds) or over your ear (headphones) for listening purposes can be detrimental to your hearing. This is because sound waves become trapped in the ear canal and, as stated earlier, can damage the delicate auditory hair cells in the cochlea. This is one critical reason why there is an increase in the number of people becoming hearing impaired.
Otherwise-educated couples drop their babies and young children off at childcare centers where there is constant racket of screaming babies, TV blaring, loud noise/music playing, and toddlers shoving things across the floor, adding screeching sounds to the bedlam. The children are exposed to this emotionally exhausting trauma ALL DAY LONG. In their most delicate stage of brain development, children are handicapped by extreme and negative environmental forces. Research has proven this to be damaging to the brain and the emotional well-being of small children. Some children do survive that environment to become normal, healthy adults, but what of the many who do not? And what might the child have become if he had been in a brain-healthy environment his entire youth?
In the world of music therapy, the word miracle is spoken daily. Music therapists are using music to bring healing to children with autism, ADHD, and Tourette syndrome, as well as mental and mood disorders. It is employed to help overcome stuttering, open up reading to non-readers, and even reverse hearing and sight disorders that originate in the brain. Those trained in the field of music therapy are being introduced to a world of possibilities never before imagined.
A person’s brain can be damaged in many ways. An infant can be born with brain damage or suffer damage at birth. It could occur as a result of an accident, medication, a high fever, oxygen deprivation, or various diseases. Often, it is an unknown element that brings on ADHD or other similar brain disorders. When the idea of neuroplasticity first emerged, researchers used animals to demonstrate its healing power, but the focus quickly shifted to older adults with debilitating brain maladies. Researchers reasoned that if an OLD brain could recover, then the sky would be the limit where young brains are concerned. Remember, young brains are even more plastic—able to change more quickly.
Several years ago, well-known Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was speaking to a crowd when an assailant shot her in the head, damaging her left hemisphere. She survived the horrific, brain-shattering blow, but was left with many disabilities, including the inability to speak. Until the application of neuroplasticity, recovery would have been a hit-or-miss experiment, possibly with little result. Her family chose to turn to a little-known treatment—music therapy. She learned to sing words before she could speak them. True to its promise, it did indeed rewire her brain. It was not a miracle, but it felt like one to all who knew her. Multiply this by the thousands and you will appreciate why I said at the beginning that neuroplasticity is so close to a miracle that it should be spelled H-O-P-E.
It is common for elderly people to have brain damage. With reports of amazing success, music therapists quickly began their own research. Could new pathways be generated in old brains through the use of music? Could even severely diseased brains respond favorably to music therapy? The answer, they discovered, is a resounding YES.
A friend was explaining to me why she couldn’t be part of an upcoming event: her husband had recently developed Parkinson’s disease. “At this point,” she said, “he is not even able to lift his feet to walk to the bathroom. It is like his feet are glued to the floor.”
I was shocked at the seemingly helpless situation and asked, “Why don’t you just sing to him?”
“Sing?” she blurted out incredulously, as if I had suddenly developed a bad case of Alzheimer’s. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You know, sing. Music activates both sides of the brain, so when a person with Parkinson’s disease gets locked up, the problem is in the brain, not in the feet. When you sing and activate large areas of the brain, the Parkinson’s brain is able to shift commands to the other side of the brain, which then allows the neural signals to reach the feet. Amazingly, they can now walk, talk, or feed themselves. Surely, the VA hospital taught you all this stuff! Your daughters are nurses—ask them!”
She just stared at me as if I were telling her a really bad joke. “No, I don’t know, and no, the VA didn’t tell me to sing to Tom. And no, my daughters didn’t tell me; so are you sure you know what you are talking about? I never heard such a crazy thing in my life.”
In a TED talk, music therapist Dr. Kathleen M. Holland said, “Music is being used to help with the mobility of people with Parkinson’s disease, a long, chronic disease process. What we are looking at here are brain-based treatments for brain-based disorders. We’re not looking at the paralyzed leg; we’re not looking at the symptom. Our goal is to address the cause changing the underlying neural mechanisms—the place in the brain that Parkinson’s has destroyed, thus can no longer communicate to the body. Music is being used by music therapists with great success across a variety of brain disorders.”12
“Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative, progressive disease that affects nerve cells deep in the parts of the brain called the basal ganglia and the substantia nigra.”13 When symptoms first appear, through music therapy, the patient can reroute neural signals to parts of the brain not yet affected. There is wonderful hope for these patients to regain many functions. Parkinson’s patients struggle with feeling as though their feet are glued to the floor, but when they even think about music, they are able to walk within seconds. People who have lost their ability to walk, talk, pick up a cup, and many other motor skills, can often function normally while music is playing or when they hum, or even think of humming a song. Music is powerful. There are host of YouTube videos where you can actually see these results.
I love what Elizabeth Stegemoller, PhD said in her TED talk: “But perhaps the most powerful component of music therapy is the social benefit derived from making music together, which can help patients combat depression. When patients with Parkinson’s engage in music therapy, often one of the first behaviors to emerge is smiling. The flat effect and masked face, characteristic of the disease, fade away.”14
Sleep Sound in Jesus by Michael Card
Baby’s First Hymns: An Instrumental Lullaby Collection by Dream Baby
Hymnworks by Lynda McKechnie (2 volumes)
Beethoven’s Wig: Sing-Along Symphonies (3 different albums)
Meet the Great Composers Book/CD sets
Peter and the Wolf, Op. 767 by Sergei Prokofiev (The Philadelphia Orchestra/David Bowie narration is an excellent album) Also available on Spotify
Classical Music Albums from Composers such as Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Peter Tchaikovsky, Frederic Chopin, Antonin Dvorak, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Johann Strauss, Felix Mendelssohn, Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Schubert (Opal Wheeler children’s biographies are great children’s books for bedtime reading.)