As a musician I am obviously very interested to read almost anything about music, especially anything which scientifically validates its value. Science is finding more and more these days that activities that westerners, with their emphasise on the material, see as pointless and merely done for enjoyment, in fact yield very interesting results which can be tangibly assessed. Take meditation for instance: a few months ago I read in a times magazine that it has been scientifically proven that meditating improves the thickness of your cerebral cortex (the grey bit that is often known as “grey matter”, its also is just a really cool scientific word!). Meditation has long been known to help reduce problems like stress, but only statistically speaking and through use of common sense. Now however science has shown that meditating does have tangible benefits!
Music is a similar sort of activity, often claimed to be have beneficial effects, but not until recently actually having scientific proof to support these claims. Music is often seen as a simple activity done for enjoyment, not something to expand the mind with. However there is now much scientific evidence out there which supports the claim that learning a musical instrument can improve your intelligence! I first read about this idea in a Karl Kruzelniski book. His information is often fascinatingly obscure and generally humorous. As a musician I was glad that this discovery had been made and it hopefully puts the rather strong stereotype of the stoned musician of the 60’s who can’t spell or read to rest.
Essentially the way the brain works is by constructing a complex structure of links. These links are memories, facts, associations and so forth. Sort of like a large network of roads. Using your brain encourages it both to build new links into new areas and also to strengthen the existing links. Thus our metaphorical road networks begin to show signs of highways.
The scientific term for an individual’s ability to build and renew these links is known as “neuroplasticty”. It is widely known that both learning a musical instrument or a new language are two of the best ways to increase ones neuroplasticity, specifically when it is started at a young age. Indeed these two methods may be the most effective ways in which to increase a child’s neuroplasticity. I certainly consider myself lucky to have learned both an instrument (the piano) and a second language (German) from a fairly young age. According to the research I should be a genius!
In this article I am going to focus on the musical side of things, but even so both of them work in almost the same way to promote neuroplasticity. Indeed, in many ways music could be seen as a form of language, as a way of expressing emotions and so on. Learning an instrument (or another language) from a young age particularly, forces your brain to think in new ways, and thus to establish new links. It encourages the brain to become more flexible in how it can establish and strengthen these new links, and through increasing the amount of links there are, your ability to create new links and all the while strengthen the existing ones, then you improve the infrastructure within your mind which allows you to think.
So what exactly does the science say about learning a musical instrument? Allow me to quote a few sources then, to support my argument:
“Listening to, and participating in music creates new neural pathways in your brain that stimulate creativity. Studies have shown that music actually trains the brain for higher forms of thinking. There was a study at the
“In the journal Neuropsychologia it was reported that musicians who started keyboard training before the age of seven had 12% thicker nerve fibers in the corpus callosum, that part of the brain that carries signals between the two hemispheres. Sharon Begley’s article, “Your Child’s Brain...” in Newsweek reported that researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany had evidence that exposure to music rewires neural circuits…In a study by Ramey and Frances Campbell of the University of North Carolina (as reported in “You Can Raise Your Child’s IQ” in Readers Digest October 1996) preschool children taught with games and songs showed an IQ advantage for 10 to 20 points over those without the songs, and at age 15 had higher reading and math scores.”
“Scientists found more grey matter in the auditory cortex of the right hemisphere in musicians compared to nonmusicians…the use of music to enhance memory is explored and research suggests that musical recitation enhances the coding of information by activating neural networks in a more united and thus more optimal fashion.”
There’s a lot more research out there, both in academic journals, books and websites, but I don’t want to bog you down to much. Suffice to say there is certainly a link between learning an instrument and increasing your neruoplasticity. Keep in mind however that many other activities can also help you, such as learning a language, or as I have previously noted, "Exercising". Where the future research in this department goes is an interesting question, but regardless of the research I’d say learn an instrument, even just for the emotional benefit of having a creative and enjoyable hobby which provides a good release for any troubles you might encounter.
As Dr. Arthur Harvey concludes in his article on “An Intelligence View of Music Education” (http://www.menc.org/publication/articles/academic/hawaii.htm):
“What we as musicians knew experientially and intuitively, scientific studies on the brain, intelligence and music are confirming that we hold in our hands as music educators a powerful tool, a key that may unlock the door to developing the great potential residing in the human brain. May this sampler whet your appetite to taste more from this table of knowledge.”