If we let music sing, other subjects will soar

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Out of all the subjects students dedicate countless hours to studying at school, which do you think boosts their IQ, memory, and problem-solving ability the most? Surely it must be core subjects like English, Maths or Science?

In reality, scientific research shows that one of the best subjects for students’ developing brains is music. 1 But instead of schools and parents rushing to get their children to learn musical instruments, music departments in many schools have been left to languish. Music education has been relegated to the ranks of ‘extra-curricular’ while other academic subjects flourish.

In this blog post, we will dispel the myth that music education matters less than other academic subjects. Because when it comes to children’s development, neurological research suggests the very opposite.

The chicken or the egg

It is widely thought that people with a naturally higher IQ make excellent musicians. While this may be true (Einstein, anyone?), it also works the other way around. As a person learns a musical instrument, it raises their IQ.

This was proven to be the case in 2004 when E. Glenn Schellenberg took 144 primary school children and randomly assigned half of them to receive musical tuition. All of the kids’ IQs improved by the end of the school year, but those receiving music lessons improved by on average three points higher than those who were not.2  

In 2018, a study in the Netherlands also found that music lessons significantly enhanced children’s cognitive skills – especially verbal intelligence, planning and cognitive inhibition.3

So now that you know music has the power to increase intelligence, we’re going to show you what’s going on behind the scenes (in your brain!) to make it all work.

How does music increase IQ anyway?

Let’s pop into the science lab for a second. We all have an insulating substance around our nerves called myelin that increases the speed at which the brain transmits data. The thicker the coating of myelin, the faster our impulses can travel and the more effective, or intelligent, our brain becomes. 

So how do we increase the thickness of myelin to supercharge our brains? By a process called myelination. As we learn a new skill, the amount of practice and repetition determine the extent of myelination taking pace.4 

The most effective way to increase the number of thickly myelinated pathways, however, is by engaging multiple areas of the brain. Since playing a musical instrument simultaneously activates the areas of the brain responsible for language, emotion, memory, visual processing, aural processing, and motor control, it is one of the most effective ways to increase the amount of myelinated pathways.5 6 Myelination restructures the brain in such a way that it significantly enhances our aptitude for acquiring, understanding, storing and applying knowledge in general.

Learning music restructures your brain

If you aren’t yet blown away by the biology of your brain, picture this: hundreds of millions of myelinated nerve fibres come together to form a bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.7 This bridge, called the corpus callosum, allows both sides of the brain to communicate.

Interestingly, the size of the corpus callosum varies from person to person depending on how much myelination has taken place. For most people, there are only a couple of substantial, thickly-myelinated connections in the corpus callosum8 formed from activities like learning to walk and talk. The other nerve connections are typically thin, poorly-myelinated, and slow at conducting brain impulses and information. 

Studies have shown that the corpus callosum is significantly larger in those who have received musical training, particularly prior to the age of seven.9 For musicians, the dramatically different size of corpus callosum is the result of having so many more of these thickly-coated, superfast connections in the brain.10 So, learning music doesn’t only make people better musicians; it makes the brain quicker, more capable, and more agile for everything else that comes its way.

Why music makes perfect sense

When we put two and two together, erasing music from education makes no sense. The life-changing neurological impact that learning music can have on children is an objective argument for restoring effective, enjoyable, and accessible music education in all schools for all students—in addition to the countless emotional, cultural, and historical ones.   

If we continue down the current path of underestimating the importance of music, high-quality music education will be cemented into a privilege for the schools and families that can afford it. This would be a catastrophic missed opportunity for the students who can’t, deepening existing social inequity.

Music education needs to be a top priority for schools and parents. And that starts with changing our attitude toward its value beyond music itself. If we let music sing, other subjects will soar.

Learn how we’re transforming music education in schools

Footnotes

  1. Jaschke, Artur C., Henkjan Honing, and Erik JA Scherder. "Longitudinal analysis of music education on executive functions in primary school children." Frontiers in neuroscience 12 (2018): 103. Available online: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00103
  2. Schellenberg, E. Glenn. "Music and cognitive abilities." Current Directions in Psychological Science 14.6 (2005): 317-320. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00389.x
  3. Jaschke, Artur C., Henkjan Honing, and Erik JA Scherder. "Longitudinal analysis of music education on executive functions in primary school children." Frontiers in neuroscience 12 (2018): 103. Available online: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00103
  4. McKenzie, Ian A., et al. "Motor skill learning requires active central myelination." science 346.6207 (2014): 318-322. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1254960
  5. Jäncke, L. (2009). Music drives brain plasticity. F1000 biology reports, 1. Available online: https://dx.doi.org/10.3410%2FB1-78.
  6.  Loui, P., Raine, L. B., Chaddock-Heyman, L., Kramer, A. F., & Hillman, C. H. (2019). Musical instrument practice predicts white matter microstructure and cognitive abilities in childhood. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1198. Available online: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01198
  7.  Gibb, R., & Kolb, B. (Eds.). (2017). The neurobiology of brain and behavioral development. Academic Press. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1016/C2015-0-00695-5
  8. Aboitiz, Francisco, et al. "Fiber composition of the human corpus callosum." Brain research 598.1-2 (1992): 143-153. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1016/0006-8993(92)90178-C
  9. Wan CY, Schlaug G. “Music making as a tool for promoting brain plasticity across the life span.” Neuroscientist. 2010 Oct;16(5):566-77. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858410377805
  10. Schlaug, Gottfried, et al. "Effects of music training on the child's brain and cognitive development." Annals-New York Academy of Sciences 1060 (2005): 219. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1360.015

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