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Train the Brain . . . With Music

By Joe Muccioli

In your search you might even find a trove of studies showing both the mental and the physical health connections to the music experience for performers and for listeners. Music therapy has become quite a large field in this regard. Music connects us in profound ways. It connects us to every part of the human experience from our lizard brain to our hearts and soul. From our cultural and ethnic ties to our inner most emotions. From a sense of community to our own self-discovery and awareness.

If you throw the proverbial stone into the Google™ machine you could hit hundreds—maybe thousands—of studies extolling the benefits of music education. Study after study points to elevated brain function, improved physical dexterity, mental acuity, improved scores on standardized academic tests, long lasting intelligence enhancement, elevated social interaction, confidence building, personal growth, and a lifetime of elevated cultural appreciation among the many direct effects. There are indeed, so many significant advantages of diligently learning to play and perform music from an early age and even through to adulthood.

Scientists are finding that music helps make new connections, not only between neurons in the brain, (the connection known as a synapse or a synaptic cleft) but also between nerve cells in the body.[1] Music lights up all of the numerous regions of the brain all at once, including those responsible for emotion, memory, motor control, timing and language. To some extent musical training even improves grammar skills, the ability to grasp meaning from words and to distinguish a question from a command for example. Research suggests that engaging the mind with musical training may be one of the most complete and rational ways of treating language impairments such as dyslexia.[2] Making music, by necessity, develops your ear, fine-tuning the ability to extract a meaningful sound from noise. A note is either correctly played or it is a mistake. It is either “in tune” or it is not. In the process of learning to play, especially in an ensemble setting, one learns to truly hear the outcome of ones’ efforts and make a judgement about whether it is pleasant or not. With such practice in auditory awareness, it is no surprise to think that the benefit of music training would carry forward to other language skills.

With all of this preponderance of evidence, why then, do we devalue instrumental music programs in many of our schools. Why are schools cutting out or watering them down to ineffective lessons that leave no room for student’s full enjoyment, discovery and mastery of an instrument. This is a disturbing trend as school systems struggle with budgets and adequate funding. Even in those schools that have made the commitment to music education, budgets are so often squeezed, threatening and underfunding these valuable — and in my opinion — essential programs.

Consider the sports programs for most schools today. A high school football team which involves perhaps 20 student athletes on the team, may employ upwards of 3 coaches, a dozen trainers and assistant coaches, technical helpers and staff, not to mention millions spent on equipment, AstroTurf fields, and stadium enhancements. Those schools lucky enough to have well developed music programs which might serve upwards of 100 students in the various classes and ensembles throughout the year, however, often employ only one instrumental music teacher. And, that teacher is additionally charged with creating a marching band to support the football team games. If it weren’t for football would there even be a music department in some of these schools? It is understood that football is often the public face of a school. Town-wide pride and the celebration of the school systems are publicly on display each weekend during football season, but aren’t there also actual educational goals that need to be considered? And shouldn’t we address the vast amount of research in favor of continuing to support music education programs?

It is not just a fun activity to participate in the band or orchestra. This activity instills valuable lessons and experience that lasts a lifetime and which directly affects capacity for learning and success in any other subject or field of study.

· Music training does more than sports, theater or dance to improve key academic skills, regardless of socioeconomic status.[3]

· A study by The College Entrance Examination Board found that students with coursework/experience in music performance and music appreciation scored higher on the SAT: students in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math, than did students with no arts participation.[4]

· A research team exploring the link between music and intelligence reported that music training is far superior to computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children's abstract reasoning skills, the skills necessary for learning math and science. Furthermore, music training causes long-term enhancement of children's spatial-temporal reasoning.[5]

Beyond just the advantages in brain activity, even the physical effort in handling such a strange piece of equipment as a flute, a trumpet, or a violin, requires a continuing development of manual dexterity. It involves fantastic coordination of fingers, hands, arms, lip, cheek and facial muscles, in addition to highly developed control of diaphragm, back, stomach, and chest muscles, which respond instantly to the sound the ear hears and the mind interprets.

Playing an instrument engages the majority of your brain according to neuroscientist Laurel Trainor. The activity appears to boost executive function, being the boss of your body and mind. Evidence suggests that with musical training comes improved memory, finer motor skills and better attention control—the ability to ignore one thing and pay attention to something else.[6]

“Paying attention” is another crucial trait which develops along with this learning and which is one that is so very important. Instrumental music training involves group performance, playing your part the best you can as an individual but also as a contributing member of an ensemble, whether very large or small. In order to create a good performance—which is inherently instilled in all music students—one must pay attention to all of the surrounding sounds and actions of the whole group.

Following a leaders’ direction (such as a conductor) is imperative as is an awareness of the other fellow musicians. Everyone wants to be “in tune” and “harmonized” with each other because it feels good and becomes more and more pleasant sounding as it improves with practice. Committing to attending rehearsals, home practice, and diligence during practice sessions or performances becomes self-evident requirements to the student for fear of standing out as the one who sounds bad, is out of tune, or who misses an important entrance. Learning to play an instrument is a thorough commitment of virtually all of the physical and mental resources a student has.

Doctor John J. Ratey explains, "The musician is constantly adjusting decisions on tempo, tone, style, rhythm, phrasing, and feeling--training the brain to become incredibly good at organizing and conducting numerous activities at once. Dedicated practice of this orchestration can have a great payoff for lifelong attentional skills, intelligence, and an ability for self-knowledge and expression."[7]

While there is so much more evidence in the literature, professional musicians know first-hand the benefits of early music training. Most of them are so dedicated to this ideal that throughout their careers they spend countless hours teaching and coaching young musicians, passing on the joy and sharing the passion of music.


Our students in the Jazz Arts Academy are so often taken aback upon meeting venerate jazz masters, for example, on how approachable they are and by the willingness they have to share their knowledge.


These masters of the art form are artists that the students may have been listening to on classic recordings. They may have studied or heard about from their own teachers. And now they meet them face to face and suddenly they find out that they have entered a global community of musicians and are offered advice and coaching from the master purveyors of the art form.


I suspect this has been known for centuries among the select populations who perform or who truly appreciate and support the arts. Now we have scientific proof to back up what to many of us is completely obvious.

Instrumental music training focuses on “doing” rather than observing or memorizing facts. It is unlike other academic subjects. You cannot read a chapter on how to play the clarinet for example and expect to be able to make music. It will require actually picking up the instrument and patiently training your entire body and mind.

It could take days just to get a squeaky sound out of the instrument. Your muscles, eyes, and ears, your posture and hand coordination, your mouth, lips, lungs, and a host of other aspects will all play a part. With perseverance, consistent practice and some proper guidance you will be playing simple songs in no time and soon ready to join the band. Then the fun starts! The experience of creating music with a group opens up so many avenues of expression, social interaction and team work. It is so clearly shown in the student’s faces as they concentrate to perform as best as they can. The discovery and the self-confidence they exhibit inevitably gains with each group session or each private lesson.

We see it in so many ways in our own Jazz Arts Academy programs, where we consistently witness such extraordinary transformation. In one year, for example, we had four graduating seniors who were accepted into top universities along with significant scholarships to attend.


Those schools—Princeton, Columbia, Rochester and Temple—even expressed in the comments upon the student’s acceptance that their participation and their talent in music was a definite determining factor.

In conclusion, there is too much evidence, proving the benefits of music training from an early age and beyond, to be ignored. We can and we must point to these studies to justify expanding the budgets, increasing the number of programs, and making them available to a much wider student population regardless of socio-economic factors. And whether or not students pursue a career in music is beside the point of music education programs. We do not teach music solely to foster the undiscovered child prodigy or even to seek out those who will choose music as a career and become professional musicians. We do not teach music so young students can have fun. We teach music so they can know what it is to be human. To recognize beauty. To be sensitive, tolerant, and culturally aware. To learn the value of sustained effort. To instill a sense of exploration and culture and a love for the arts so that our human society may benefit in the long term. With music we offer a vehicle for profound personal growth for as many students as we can reach. We must continue these programs and advocate for more funding and resources.


[2] Music and Dyslexia: A New Musical Training Method to Improve Reading and Related Disorders

Michel Habib, Chloé Lardy, Tristan Desiles, Céline Commeiras, Julie Chobert, Mireille Besson

Frontiers in Psychology. 2016; 7: 26. Published online 2016 Jan 22. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00026

[3] Data from the German Institute for Economic Research

[4] College-Bound Seniors National Report: Profile of SAT Program Test Takers. Princeton, NJ:

The College Entrance Examination Board, 2001

[5] Shaw, Rauscher, Levine, Wright, Dennis and Newcomb,Neurological Research, Vol. 19, February 1997

[6] Laurel Trainor, director of the auditory development lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada

[7] A User's Guide to the Brain. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001.

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