Learning and studying music can change your brain in profound ways. It has been discovered that cultural activities can change brain structure, and that the brain is more elastic, and not so “hardwired” like scientists and neurologists once thought.
One example is a group of people called the Sea Gypsies, who are a group of nomads who live off the West coast of Thailand. They survive by harvesting clams and sea cucumbers. They learn to swim before they even learn to walk, and live over half their lives in boats and on the open sea. Their children dive down, sometimes thirty feet deep or more; learn how to slow down their heart rate, and get the clams and sea cucumbers. These children can see clearly at these great depths, without goggles. Most humans cannot see clearly because the sunlight gets bent or “refracted” in the water and the light doesn’t land where it should on the retina. Research from Sweden has found that remarkably, these children have learned to control the shape of their pupils, constricting them by up to 22 percent. Most humans’ pupils get larger under water, which was thought to be a fixed, innate reflex of the brain and nervous system. Now we know through this research that the brain, through training, can alter what was once thought to be a hardwired, unchangeable circuit.
The brains of musicians have been scanned and analyzed to see their brain circuits. The brain of blind Jazz musician Matthew Whitaker has been analyzed, to see where his brain lights up: https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/28853/20201229/meet-blind-pianist-amazing-brain-neuroscientists-studying.htm.
To quote Dr. Norman Doige, M.D., from his book “The Brain that changes Itself ”, pages 289-290:
“Music makes extraordinary demands on the brain. A pianist performing the eleventh variation of the Sixth Paganini Etude by Franz Liszt must play a staggering eighteen hundred notes per minute. Studies by Taub and others of musicians who play stringed instruments have shown that the more these musicians practice, the larger the brain maps for their active left hands become, and the neurons and maps that respond to string timbres (meaning different qualities of sound) increase; in trumpeters the neurons and maps that respond to “brassy” sounds enlarge. Brain imaging shows that musicians have several areas of their brains—the motor cortex and the cerebellum, among others—that differ from those of nonmusicians. Imaging also shows that musicians who begin playing before the age of seven have larger brain areas connecting the two hemispheres.”
The important point I would like to make in relation to this research on the brain is that these are the benefits of studying music that I would like the parents of my violin and piano students to fully understand and appreciate for their children. Most music students in general are way too young, often, to appreciate the benefits that their brains are receiving by studying music. They couldn’t care less~they simply want to learn the music and have fun!
However, realistically speaking, I know that most of my students will not go on to become professional musicians, or study music in college. But I want them to receive the benefits from studying music. And what they learn from studying music is more than they will ever learn in school, because playing music engages both brain hemispheres at once.
We all have two brain hemispheres, that really look like two chicken fillets: we have a left brain and a right brain. The left brain does the analyzing: reading the notes, and all the symbols in the music. The right brain does the interpreting: incorporating the emotion of the music. And because young music students, and musicians in general, have a larger brain area connecting the two hemispheres, they will be much more able and equipped to make hard decisions in life. Their critical thinking skills will be much more able to handle the demands of life.
Life is not easy, and we as humans need more than ever, I think, to be able to do critical thinking. Critical thinking in our world has sadly been lost to a large degree, through lack of education, too much T.V., Internet and social media, and the ubiquitous use of smartphones. I am not suggesting these things that I just mentioned, including smartphones are all bad~they are very useful, and very convenient. Smartphones allow us to communicate instantly. However, they are also highly addictive and if we don’t use them in a more balanced way, we don’t interact with humans, and nature, like we used to. We read and see; hear constant opinions and do not do enough thinking for ourselves.
Critical thinking is not something you are born with, but is something that has to be cultivated in a human being from a very early age. Studying music allows us to do that.