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.

Memorization: Part II

Memorizing anything is possible if you break it down into manageable pieces.  This post is Part II about the details of my working process.  Be sure to read first half: The Herculean Task of Memorizing a One-Woman Show to get a better understanding of my memorization toolbox.

Remember, time is your friend. Taking breaks is very important.  It allows the brain to sort and file and tidy up the neural connections that are being made with the practicing.  If my brain starts to feel exhausted while I am working I switch to a different task, either with music or something completely different.  (There are probably dishes to be washed… just saying.)  Also, physical exercise has been shown to increase cognitive functioning and the encoding of new skills.  Circulating the blood is good for so many things, so I do myself many favors and go for a walk.  There’s also one more important use of time that shouldn’t be forgotten.  Sleep.  Lots of cleaning up and organizing happens in the brain while we sleep, so as tempting as it is, I try not to short-change myself.

Feeling more confident?  By this time, the bits and pieces should be falling into place.  My next step is, pencil in hand, to take a neutral vowel and sing my pitches in rhythm with the accompaniment and test how far I am.  I absolutely will mark the questionable spots in my score.  I also take time around now to make a note of the time markers for major sections in the accompaniment recording so I can find them more quickly in the future. Writing in the time markers for the tricky spots is also very useful.

I’d be closer to adding the words now, but there’s another intermediate step that is useful.  Singing on just the vowels of the words.  I imagine my lips have superglue on them and there’s no way I want them to touch, but I still say the words “inside” my mouth.  This sounds silly, but it works.  All the rest of the articulation muscles move (including the tongue), but my lips just don’t touch.  Consonants can be such a temptation to cheat by not using helpful breath management muscles, so at this point in the process I keep temptation far away.

Success?  Now I’ll add in the words with the accompaniment.  This is where the fun level of vocal technique really gets to be teased apart.  This does not concern memorization of words as much as memorization of muscle coordination, which is also very important.  I look for places where my tonal resonance isn’t as strong and play detective to figure out the ins and outs of those details.  Consonants, where the pitches are in my register, as well as what precedes and follows, all have considerable contribution to this layer of muscle memory.

Erasable Highlighters.  Yep.  These are immensely helpful to me and deserve a special mention.  Once I feel I have a pretty good handle on everything, I’ll try it “off book” not looking at the score.  I’ll either hand the score to someone else to follow along, or I’ll record myself so I can listen back.  Any place that isn’t quite right will get highlighted with whatever color I’ve chosen for that time through.  The next time I do a major test, I’ll use a different color highlighter.  Where I start to see colors pile up, I know I have some major work to do.  The beauty is that I can easily erase colors when it’s all over or if things have just gotten too colorfully out of hand.  (NOTEIf you’d like to know more about these magical tools, I’ve written a “bonus” post that tells you more than you need to know about erasable highlighters.)

Polishing.  By the time the colors are adorning the score, it’s up to careful repetition and focusing on the trouble spots that continue to elude my brain.  Generally, inventing outlandish stories or finding quirky connections or out-there clues will help my brain put the last puzzle pieces in order.  Sometimes, though, by this point my brain is so overworked that it’s helpful to have a friend (or the music director) step in and offer a fresh perspective.  Usually they can help come up with an idea completely foreign to me since they have the ultimate viewpoint outside of the “picture frame” of my mindset.

Success of security.  By taking the piece and practicing it in various contexts and levels of distraction, I can help gain the comfort of knowing that my brain has a firm hold on all of the material.  In live performances, one can never be sure what might happen, and you don’t want every little jiggle to throw you off your game.  Arlington was performed in a large coffeehouse that was in a 100 year old building complete with lots of charm and challenges.  (The show was set in Sara Jane’s living room, and this space really felt like you were in her home.)  I moved around within the seated audience throughout the show and there was never a moment that I couldn’t have reached out and touched, or been touched, by someone.  At each performance my blocking (movement) was slightly different just because of how people ended up sitting.  Interestingly, this space was just a portion of the coffeehouse and the main areas were still open to customers.  Although luckily it didn’t happen often, unknowing customers could easily walk into the performance space in the middle of the show.

Memorization is a personal thing, and in the end you’ll need to experiment to see what works best for you.  There are lots of times when I need to memorize something short for one performance only, and I’m not nearly this thorough in the process.  I still want to feel secure, but I know that it’s not as crucial that everything stays in my brain for a long time.  We are lucky to be in this amazing age of research where brain and learning scientists have unlocked so much information that is infinitely helpful.  Why not use all of the tips and tricks to work smarter, not harder?  Performing has enough challenges on its own!

Happy Practicing!

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

Steven’s Music Page

Steve Graham is one of my adult voice students and is a great example of how much someone can accomplish if they put their mind and heart into it.  Steve teaches guitar (and does an amazing job setting up instruments) and keeps a blog of his thoughts and pursuits.  This is a great post reflecting on his experiences with his singing adventure:


“Thoughts, observations and experiences of an older, non-traditional music student. Topics cover lessons, performances, guitars, and gear descriptions…”

Source: Steven’s Music Page

Welcome, fellow adventurer!

Thank you for joining me on this wonderful journey of exploration and discovery.  From the beginning, the human mind and body has been equipped to tell stories and the voice has been a powerful ally in this pursuit.

Using the voice as an instrument, though, requires thinking about and using our bodies in a slightly different way than we might be familiar with in our everyday lives.  Also, learning to make these adjustments in habits can be a much more enjoyable process if we apply what has been learned about learning.  After all, we humans have been working on it for a long time.  Let’s stand on the shoulders of the explorers that have gone before us!