Can Music Fine Tune Your Brain?
By Aiyoung, Alice, Florence and Mathilda
To what extent does playing a musical instrument as a child benefit one later in life?
The author and neurologist, Oliver Sacks, remarked in his book Musicophilia: ‘What an odd thing it is to see an entire species - billions of people - playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call “music”.’
Mr Sacks was surely right to wonder at humankind’s attitude towards the art. Music cannot explain or make sense of the world in the way that science can. It could be argued that music is just a pointless indulgence or a waste of time.
However, in recent years, studies have led experts to believe that music can be more than the sum of its chords. It is now thought that music can change people’s lives in more ways than previously understood.
The concert pianist, James Rhodes, is adamant that music transformed his life. Having suffered abuse as a child, he turned his life around and made his musical debut in 2009. Rhodes soon rose to the top of the charts and is now a world-famous pianist and a bestselling author.
In his latest book, ‘How to Play the Piano’, he cites a study by Susan Hallam of UCL which describes the effects of learning an instrument. According to the study, music improves ‘discipline, self-confidence, focus, problem-solving, language, literacy, maths and personal well-being’.
This concept is concisely summarised by Mr Rhodes, who says, ‘you can be a complete dunce and still benefit from the fact that learning to play the piano makes you a more rounded and fulfilled person’.
This opinion is confirmed by Keval Shah, a performer and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. He says that he enjoys the state of mind and discipline of music making: ‘It keeps my brain healthy.’
Mr Shah believes music to be a metaphor for a more widely fulfilled life. He says it teaches you all of the necessary skills you need such as: ‘honesty, meaning, clear communication, empathy, and respect’.
Science will support this, as a leading London-based Consultant Neurosurgeon Lewis Thorne outlines. He explains that people with advanced knowledge in particular areas have different brain structures. ‘London taxi drivers have a bigger part of their brain that stores geographical memories, bilingual people use more of their brain for language.’
It seems that musicians also recruit more of their brains for the necessary functions and so change the proportions of their brains too. ‘The musicians in that study had recruited more of their brain for the functions needed’.
Music can also help some people with health issues, such as dementia. Mr Thorne says that ‘the part of the brain that stores repeated movements such as scales is different from the part of the brain which is affected by dementia’. This allows dementia patients to recall songs from their childhood and learn to play musical instruments when they can’t remember the date.
He debunks the notion that playing music while operating has an effect on patients, as under anaesthesia patients are in a state of unawareness. He adds that music can be of benefit to the surgical team, mentioning one of his colleagues who favours heavy metal while working on the operating table.
Despite the benefits of music, instruments can be expensive; an average beginner guitar costs £180. This is a factor that limits people's enjoyment and participation in music, and surely the government should be striving to help families who would not usually be able to afford the resources required.
Amanda Williams, Assistant Director of Music at St Marylebone CE School, observes how students with interests in creative subjects like music and drama tend also to do well in academic subjects.
Some might argue that this might, in part, be that people who practice music are more likely to be generally diligent, due to the amount of patience and commitment required to excel at music, but the observations of all the people included in our study suggest that there must be more in music and creativity.
After all, when asked about his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein said: ‘It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.’
If this argument is supported by Einstein, surely even the most sceptical non-musician would have to be persuaded of music’s capacity to change lives by one of the greatest scientists of all time.