Music and The Brain
Connections between brain cells are called synapses. Recent brain
research demonstrates that these connections grow stronger with
use and become weaker if they are not used.
Many systems of the human brain rely on the exchange of
information across these synapses. The stronger the synapses, the
faster information can be exchanged between brain cells, and the
better the following systems can operate:
- The sensory and perceptual systems: auditory, visual, and
- The cognitive system: symbolic, linguistic, and reading
- Body movements: fine and gross muscle action and coordination
- Feedback and evaluation of actions
- The motivational and hedonic (pleasure) system
- Memory and recall of facts learned
Brain scans taken during musical performances show that virtually
the entire cerebral cortex (central processing area of the brain) is
active while musicians are performing. Almost every system of
the brain is at work simultaneously during a music performance,
and brain cells are rapidly sending messages. The "workout" that
the brain experiences during a musical performance strengthens the
connections between brain cells, allowing the brain to function
more efficiently.
How can music-making engage the entire brain? Consider the
steps involved in taking a piece of music from notes on a page to
sound. This process includes interpreting complex symbols and
sending messages quickly to muscles to adjust the fingers, lips, or
vocal mechanisms. Musicians have to plan ahead so their fingers,
bows, or mallets are in the right place to play the next note, and
singers and wind instrument players need enough air to sustain
long notes and phrases. During practice, musicians review their
performance and make corrections and changes.
While solo musicians engage in the processes above, musicians
performing in an ensemble (chorus, band, orchestra, or chamber
group) utilize even more brain systems. Ensemble musicians must
interpret and act upon the conductor's gestures at the same time
they are reading music symbols from the page. They also have to
balance their own sound with the sound of other musicians. These
"ensemble processes" entail a split-second procedure of evaluation
and adjustment that each musician repeats countless times during a
Music making offers extensive exercise for brain cells and their
synapses (connections). It would be difficult to find another
activity that engages so many of the brain's systems. Synapses
between brain cells strengthen with use just as muscles do, and
there is good reason to believe that music making increases the
brain's capacity by improving these synapses.
Source: "The Music in Our Minds" by Norman M. Weinberger.
Published in Educational Leadership, Vol. 56, No. 3: November 1998.
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