If We Let Music Sing – Other Subjects Will Soar

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Out of everything studied at school and all the hours spent learning in classrooms, which subject do you think boosts intelligence the most? Which one increases IQ, improves memory and develops problem solving ability?

Surely it must be one of the ‘core subjects’ – English, Maths or Science?

You may be surprised to learn that the best subject for your brain 1 – the one that impacts your intelligence the most, is also the one that too many see as an ‘add-on’ or extra-curricular – is Music.

Yes! More than any other subject on the curriculum, instrumental music education is the most effective way to increase your intelligence. And this fact that should fundamentally change the way we teach our children – for good.

Can our level of intelligence really be changed?

So how does this work? Surely intelligence is fixed for each of us? How can our intelligence be changed? And where does learning an instrument fit in? Let’s pop into the science lab for a second:

We have a substance around our nerves called myelin. Myelin is an insulating layer which increases the speed the brain transmits data. A sort of ‘brain oil’. The thicker the coating of myelin, the faster our impulses can travel and the more effective, or intelligent, our brain becomes.

So how does the coating get thicker? By a process called myelination, which occurs as we learn and practice new skills such as a musical instrument. 2 The most effective way to increase the thickness of myelin is by rehearsing a new skill which engages multiple complex areas of the brain. Since playing a musical instrument will simultaneously engage areas of your brain responsible for language, emotion, memory, visual processing, aural processing, motor control and many more, learning a musical instrument is one of, if not the most effective way to increase our intelligence! 3 4

Practising music restructures your brain – literally!

We have a junction box in the brain which allows the right and left hemispheres to communicate – the corpus callosum. Studies have shown that the corpus callosum is significantly larger in those that have received musical training, particularly in those that started their training prior to the age of seven. 5 The corpus callosum size is important because it shows just how much myelination is taking place. Most of the nerve connections in this brain junction box would normally be thin, poorly myelinated and slow at conducting the brain impulses and information. For most people there will only be a couple of substantial, thickly myelinated connections in the corpus callosum, 6 which come from our usual activity and learning – things like learning to walk and talk. 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.7 So, practicing music doesn’t just make you better at music. It makes you quicker, more capable and agile for everything else that comes your way! By practicing a musical instrument, you are literally restructuring your brain in such a way that you significantly increase your aptitude for acquiring, understanding, storing and applying knowledge. 

Real life, real change 

It has often been thought that people with a naturally higher IQ can go on to become excellent musicians. In truth it works the other way round. As you practise and your musical ability improves, you raise your 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 the children’s IQs improved by the end of the school year, but those receiving music lessons improved on average 3 points higher than those who were not.8 In 2018, a study in the Netherlands also found that music lessons significantly enhanced children’s cognitive skills – especially verbal intelligence, planning and inhibition.9

And it’s not just children who can benefit from this musical-neurological partnership. All ages have been shown to reap the rewards of instrumental tuition: A team led by the University of South Florida’s Jennifer Bugos conducted a study in adults aged 60-85, finding that there were significant advances in reducing age-related cognitive decline in those receiving piano lessons. The team noted enhancements in executive functioning such as planning, decision making and self-control as well as processing speeds and working memory processes.10

Music practice makes perfect sense  

By default, the signals being passed across our brains will want to travel along the already thickly myelinated connections. This is why it can be tricky to learn new things or do something in a way you’re unfamiliar with. In order to trigger myelination, the brain signals need to be sent down thinner, less conductive connections which creates new pathways and links within the brain. This is why the best music practice will often involve taking something slowly and repetition. Slowing down gives more time for the data to be sent in a new and less familiar direction. Then, as you repeat with accuracy, that new and effective pathway is myelinated and becomes more developed. The more music practice you do – and the better quality it is – the more dramatic the increase in IQ. 11 12

All together now

For the young or for those young at heart, music is for everyone. We can all tap into the benefits of practical music if we can access quality music lessons and practice. Because it is in practising that myelination is turbo charged, that’s how the ‘brain oil’ really increases! That means we not only develop a higher capability to play music, but an improved ability to do other things, too. 

Therefore music is key to tackling disparity in the life chances that come from differing opportunities in education. That makes it a top priority – it’s the answer to our widening social inequalities. If musical tuition was within easy reach of us all, we’d see how instrumental it could be in changing futures.

Music has the power to increase our ability. The power to help us achieve. To forge new pathways. To give us those opportunities we didn’t know we had. In fact, music can change our world. So let it change your future.

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. 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.
  3. Jäncke, L. (2009). Music drives brain plasticity. F1000 biology reports, 1. Available online: https://dx.doi.org/10.3410%2FB1-78.
  4. 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.
  5. Schlaug, Gottfried, et al. “Increased corpus callosum size in musicians.” Neuropsychologia 33.8 (1995): 1047-1055. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1016/0028-3932(95)00045-5.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Bugos, Jennifer A., et al. “Individualized piano instruction enhances executive functioning and working memory in older adults.” Aging and mental health 11.4 (2007): 464-471. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1080/13607860601086504.
  11. Haier, Richard J., et al. “Structural brain variation and general intelligence.” Neuroimage 23.1 (2004): 425-433. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2004.04.025.
  12. Jäncke, L. (2009). Music drives brain plasticity. F1000 biology reports, 1. Available online: https://dx.doi.org/10.3410%2FB1-78.

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