Recently, I came across an inspiring article about music in the October 2010 scientific journal Neuroscientist, “Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span” by Catherine Y. Wan and Gottfried Schlaug, both from Harvard Medical School.
The article has two parts. The first is a review of various recent studies about the side effects that regular music practice has. This is an impressive list. Children who practice music consistently show greater skills in auditory, motor, and vocabulary tasks, as well as abstract reasoning and mathematical functioning, than those with similar backgrounds who do not.
The article also reviews recent studies about music and aging. As is relatively well-known, active engagement with cognitive activities of all sorts is good for slowing mental decline. Music making seems to be especially effective. A 5-year study, following people over 75 for the onset of dementia, indicated that regular playing of a musical instrument seemed to be the best way to provide protective benefit against dementia, more so than reading, writing, or doing crossword puzzles.
The second part of the article is an investigation of the effects that music has on the brain. And to make a long story short, the article shows that at all stages of life, the tangible benefits of regular practice on instruments are accompanied by impressive effects on brain structure and function.
Needless to say, playing music and entering into the feelings, ideas, and aspirations of great artists are, of themselves, inspiring and uplifting experiences. But practicing can sometimes feel tedious, and when our children complain, it is good to know that playing an instrument has important indirect educational and developmental benefits for them. So when we all as parents hit those inevitable moments of discouragement when we wonder, “Why are we insisting that our children practice their instrument every day?” we can remind ourselves that this musical practice is having profound effects on our children’s future capacities for life, potentially up through their old age.
This article was originally published in the 2011 Spring Edition of the Garden Breeze Newsletter of the