Tell us how listening to and playing music affects the brain …
NATHAN WALLIS: Music lights up the whole brain. When you do a scan and isolate different skills, you can see that reading (for instance) lights up a certain small part of the brain … doing calculus lights up other tiny parts of the brain … when you start interacting with someone, far more parts of the brain are activated … but then you start singing, and the whole thing lights up!
You can tell that humans have been singing for thousands of years because it engages most of the brain. In the literature, we talk about The Mozart Effect – the beat of Mozart’s music tends to replicate the resting human heartrate. When the human heartbeat is at resting point, it means that the survival brain is also at resting point – so you’re feeling safe and comfortable. Which also means you have access to your intellectual brain.
So the Mozart effect really means that music relaxes you and therefore makes you more intelligent. If you think of your learning brain and survival brain as a set of scales, one has to be down for the other to be up; so you can’t access that learning part if your survival brain’s engaged.
Are there some types of music or instruments that fire up the brain more (in more positive ways) than others?
NATHAN: Any music that triggers the Mozart effect is the most positive. And singing is a really fast way to calm your brain down. If you think about our ancestors living all those years ago, only once their survival needs had been met would they have sung … once they’d had food, and everyone was safe, then they’d have gathered around the fire and shared stories and songs. When you’re being chased by a sabre-tooth tiger, you’re not going to stop and start singing! So if you can sing, that sends your brain a clear message that you’re not in danger.
It also depends upon the association you have with certain songs. For example, the Jaws music will have a very different effect on the brain than Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Music goes straight to your emotional brain, and your emotional brain (the amygdala) is physically connected to the memory portion of your brain (your hippocampus). That’s why memory and music are so closely connected; when you hear a song, it can take you right back to a specific place and time.
You will know, for instance, lots of lyrics without having tried to memorise them. In fact, experts say the average person knows the lyrics to about a thousand songs! You may have studied the Periodic Table in chemistry class for hours and hours and still not be able to recall it with any accuracy. But song lyrics from decades ago (because they were set to music) have stuck in your brain! That’s because the Periodic Table is an abstract fact in your frontal cortex, which is much further away from your memory centre than your emotional brain (and music triggers that emotional brain).
We really don’t tap into music properly in the school curriculum – even though we know it lights up the whole brain. We still tend to take the linear approach to education. Schools tend to focus heavily on left-brain activities; science, technology, engineering, maths – and that misses out on developing the right brain. Interestingly, many of our music geniuses in this country go through school being told they’re failures … because schools just don’t pick up on musical intelligence.
How does having music on in the background – during studying and learning – affect cognition?
NATHAN: Having music on in the background doesn’t engage the brain as much as singing does, but it does help. There have been positive results in classrooms with playing background music that keeps to that resting heartbeat tempo. However, just playing music that children choose doesn’t necessarily have the same benefit; you tend to get a mixed result. For some kids it helps them focus more, but for others, it’s a distraction.
What are the psychological benefits of music?
NATHAN: A brain that’s trained in music is a brain that’s biologically able to calm down. If you start formal instruction in a musical instrument before the age of seven (when there’s so much neuroplasticity), your brain develops a thicker corpus callosum. This is the bridge joining the left and right brain, which is associated with increased intelligence and resilience.
Children who train in an instrument tend to be less prone to anxiety and depression; they’ve got more resilience against those challenges. There are still benefits if you learn an instrument later than age seven, but you don’t see it physically change the brain as much after that point.
The corpus callosum gives you the ability to incorporate your right brain emotions with your left brain logic. So the thicker your corpus callosum is, generally, the more emotionally intelligent you are. Women tend to have a much thicker corpus callosum than men do. So I’d imagine that a boy who learns a musical instrument before the age of seven is going to have higher degrees of emotional intelligence, closer to the EI of women.
What should parents know about how music can enhance the mental performance of their children?
NATHAN: There’s a lot of research connecting music – especially piano playing – to maths. Learning music isn’t just learning to play music … it enhances your ability to be creative, innovative, and insightful. I remember seeing a show in the US years ago about a teacher in the Bronx who took a class of kids from the bottom tenth percentile. He spent a year with them and did nothing but turn the curriculum into songs. In their exams at the end of the year, they went into the top ten percent!
Putting material to music just makes it so much easier to learn. I do think that we undervalue music in the curriculum! Our kids would have a lot less anxiety and depression (and they’d be more intelligent!) if music were an integral part of the curriculum like reading or maths. It used to be that way, but we’ve crowded it out with the move to focus on STEM subjects.
These days, choir is something the kids have to do at lunchtime – and that’s to the detriment of our students. We really need to take note of the current research and push music back into the curriculum.
NATHAN WALLIS HAS DEVELOPED A REPUTATION AS A LIVELY AND ENGAGING SPEAKER. HIS HUMOUR AND PLAIN LANGUAGE MAKE THE COMPLEX TOPIC OF NEUROSCIENCE BURST INTO LIFE! FIND HIM ON FACEBOOK AND LOOK FOR AN EVENT NEAR YOU …