Music and Brain Science

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate.

Music is a Curious Thing. Archaeologists have found flutes that were created around 42,000 years ago. The location of cave paintings made over 10,000 years ago interestingly point to sound and music being an important part of the ritualistic experience. While it’s likely that we’ll never know the details of how the human ability of sound identification and replication transformed into the art of music, it is clear that interacting with sound has long been an important part of our cultural existence and development.

Listen to a recording of the oldest playable flute


from the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Music’s Effects. What effect does music have on the brain? With the help of neuroscience, researchers now have a clearer look inside the skull, which has allowed for interesting discoveries as well as telling questions. Scientists have identified neural pathways that are almost exclusively music-activated, when before it was speculated that music was just a hodgepodge of different brain areas working together. A growing number of studies point to valuable and relevant information regarding music and its interrelationship with education. Many questions still remain regarding the hows and whys of music, but there is no need to wait for more evidence of the positive effects before infusing music into schools more fully.

Throughout Life.
Music provides measurable benefits not only for the developing childhood brain, but also for the duration of the brain’s aging process. In 2003, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug and colleagues found that after only 15 months of music instrument training, the brains of young children show growth in areas related to auditory and motor improvements. A further study by Hanna-Pladdy and Gajewski in 2012 shows that musical instrument practice for more than 10 years helps to preserve cognitive functioning through life, and that if musical skills acquisition is started at age 9 or younger it provides even more brain-benefit in old age. Overall, it appears that learning musical instrument skills early in life and continuing the practice of those skills can enhance cognitive functioning even as the brain functioning of peers is starting to decline. Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay’s 2011 study also showed a strong relationship between cognitive functioning in advancing years and the amount of time participating in music throughout life. Excitingly, the results point to benefits of early and continuing participation in music that are independent of the amount of any other education received.

Unexpected Benefits.
How is music having this effect? Many studies show exactly what you might expect. By practicing specific muscular coordination and listening activities, the corresponding areas of the brain are strengthened and enhanced. Participating in music requires translating symbols on a page into muscular actions that integrate body awareness to a high degree. Music is generally performed with and for others. This requires a high level of awareness to balance and adjust within the group.

It’s no surprise that music is a complex and multi-sensory experience. What might be unexpected, though, is how intertwined these skills are with everyday communication. Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, published a review in 2014 that highlights the effects early musical training has on the ability of the adult brain to quickly and accurately discern consonants in conversation. The adults with early musical training outperformed the non-musician adults in this activity, but amazingly the participating musical adults had not played a musical instrument in 40 years. Those who had trained the longest, though, (between 4 and 14 years), did respond the fastest. When considering how easy it is to feel isolated and lonely in situations where only portions of conversations can be understood, the value of honing auditory skills is apparent.

Valuing Evidence. The studies supporting the beneficial effects of musical training on the brain throughout life are overwhelming and continuing. The evidence is strong for taking advantage of the special window of cognitive development in students ages 9 and younger; continuing forward with musical instruction past age 9 also has measurable benefits. In this difficult time of limited funding and broad-reaching educational goals and requirements, it might be tempting to look to music class as a frivolous side activity, but the reality of studies show that this ancient element of the human condition has far-reaching wealth for learning and living.

Rhythm in Your Classroom

by Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate

(reprinted from the Center for Educational Improvement July 2016 newsletter)

“But I’m not a music teacher.” 


Rhythm is an often overlooked way to bring a fun and valuable tool into the classroom of any subject matter.  By introducing information to the brain from as many angles as possible, more neural connections are created and strengthened.  Rhythm’s components of movement and distraction can be two key players in improving learning.  There is now a large collection of research that proves what many have suspected all along.  Human bodies are meant to move, and learning is enhanced by that movement.  Neuroscientist Wendy A. Suzuki suggests that we “consider how the educational system might be altered if we acknowledge exercise’s ability to brighten our mood, decrease stress, and improve our attention span and memory.  The growing evidence that exercise improves these key brain functions should encourage schools around the world to increase— not decrease— students’ physical activity.  Not only would this help students to better absorb everything from history lessons to chemistry experiments, they’d be a lot happier, too.”

Movement.  A 2013 review of studies on the effects of cardiovascular exercise on the human brain shows that exercise benefits learning by priming the molecular processes that help form memory.  When the role of fitness on the brains of preadolescent children was studied in 2015 by Chaddock-Heyman et al., evidence was found that suggests aerobic fitness benefits the both the brain and cognition.  Essentially, what happens is that a certain type of protein is created during exercise that seems to play a role in the development and maintenance of healthy neurons.  The exercise-increased proteins also pump up the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning.

Distraction.  There are two parts of learning: getting things to stick in the brain, and then getting them to come back out (hopefully at the appropriate time).  Using distraction as an intentional tool can help with both of these processes.  A study at Brown University in 2014 found that if a task was to be recalled in an environment that had distractions, it was best learned in an environment that had a similar level of distractions.  It wasn’t necessary that they were the same diversions, just that they were of a similar level.

Application.  Which brings us to multiplication tables, or the periodic table, or the German alphabet.  Whatever set of data students are memorizing can be more effectively learned if elements of movement and appropriate distraction are applied.  One very fun way to do this is with rhythm.  (Please note:  if you’re someone who thinks “I have no rhythm!” follow this link for a basic tutorial video to help you find the beat and work with a metronome.) 

With students out of their chairs, start with a slow beat.  Tapping or marching is an easy way to have everyone join together in the activity.  A metronome is very helpful for keeping a steady tempo, and keeping track of the metronome number (the beats per minute, or BPM) can allow progress to be charted.  Demonstrate the recitation goal to the students; for example, decide if each word comes on a beat or every two beats.  Repeat this activity over many days and experiment with the speed.  When it seems all students have progressed to a fast tempo, do some slow motion repetitions and check that the information can be recalled under varying circumstances.

Also, adjusting movements with the tempo can add additional useful elements to the learning experience.  When all students are comfortable with one aspect, such as marching, add another layer.  Possibilities include snapping, clapping, gesturing with different parts of the body (elbows, heels, knees, shoulders).  The sillier the combination, the better the facts will stick in the brain.

Summary.  Rhythm is a valuable tool for all classrooms.  By incorporating movement and relevant distraction into lesson plans, the brain can become both healthier and more able to embed and recall information.  It is important to remember to balance this rhythm-movement activity with stationary and quiet practice to allow learning to take place in yet another context.  The goal of introducing information to the brain in as many different ways as possible will keep all students actively engaged throughout the learning process.

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Center for Educational Improvement

Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern.

The feeling of being safe and secure allows us to take risks and explore our world. This freedom to learn can be quickly destroyed, though, if a traumatic event is experienced. Research shows that students who suffer from adverse childhood experiences struggle in education, health, and social environments. The school[…]

Source: Trauma-Sensitive Schools – Center for Educational Improvement

Ways to Strengthen Learning – Center for Educational Improvement

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern.  The clever phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together,” was born from a 1949 theory by neurologist Donald Hebb.  One of the implications of this idea is that the more learning variations are provided to the brain, the stronger the information is embedded.  By revisiting Kolb’s Learning Cycle and layering in modern neuroscience[…]

Source: Ways to Strengthen Learning – Center for Educational Improvement

Empathy vs. Compassion – Center for Educational Improvement

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern.  Is empathy a bad thing? The ability to feel someone’s pain or suffering, joy or excitement. The ability to share in the feelings of what it is to be human. This ability of our brain helps us be better people… or does it? In a 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival conversation[…]

Source: Empathy vs. Compassion – Center for Educational Improvement

Mirror Neurons and Singing

Mirror neurons are a fascinating discovery about how certain parts of our brain work.  Neuroscience has allowed us to more closely understand why, when we see someone yawn, we’ll likely yawn, too.  When we see someone do a physical action with intention, part of our brain lights up… neurons fire… as if we were doing the action ourselves.

These mirror neurons were discovered in the early 90’s by a research team in Italy led by Giacomo Rizzolatti.  Since then, more research has been published and more questions and challenges have developed.  This short video from NOVA in 2005 gives a nice overview of these so-called “empathy neurons” (but note that the mention of a possible link to autism is still hotly debated).

So how can we use this knowledge to our benefit as performers?  The key really is that observer’s brains pick up on actions delivered with intention.  It’s the difference between seeing someone just “singing the words” and someone who is feeling and exhibiting the emotion with their entire body.  Humans are very adept at picking up the smallest of clues, and whether we realize it or not, we are always observing and being observed when we are on stage.

A good way to practice this skill of emoting is to start by keeping a personal emotion journal.  Pay attention and make note of all of the ways you experience an emotion.  Use a mirror to see how your outer body is affected when you are experiencing a specific state.  Tap into noticing what is going on inside your body as well.  What does your gut feel like?  How easy or difficult is it to focus on specific things?  Start with basic emotions like:

  • happy
  • sad
  • afraid
  • angry
  • disgusted
  • surprised

Once you have a better grasp on how you personally exhibit and experience these emotions, here’s a fun grouping of other possibilities to explore:

 emotion list at

When you have a better grasp on what your body does under the influence of certain emotions, the next step is to make sure that you are showing those things while you are singing.  Perhaps the quickest and easiest way is to video yourself singing a song you’ve been working on and then watch it back.  Try to see the performance with fresh eyes, as an audience member would.  If everything is great, congratulations!  If you can tell that what you’re feeling isn’t coming across, it’s time to go “back to the score.”

With your lyrics or sheet music in front of you, mark with a pencil all of the emotional shifts that exist in the song.  The song probably can be summed up in one umbrella emotion (it’s a happy song, it’s a sad song), but anything worth it’s time to sing has more emotions when you look for them.  Make a note above each phrase where a new feeling  appears.  Once you’ve finished, compare your notes about how your body senses and shows emotions with the specific ones highlighted in your song.  Sometimes, just by making this connection in your brain, your body will more easily show what you’re feeling while singing the song.  Video yourself with this new information and see what you discover.

Remember, we now have scientific evidence that to be a performer who truly makes a connection with our audience we have to be genuine in our storytelling intentions.  Humans are pretty good at spotting a “fake!”