Until recently, we believed that people were born with a certain capacity for learning, and intelligence and creativity were fixed traits. The “left brain/right brain” theory was also widely accepted as the explanation for why some people are more creative than others and some people are more analytical than others. Artists and musicians were right-brain dominant and had a much lower capacity for science and numbers. Conversely, scientists and mathematicians were left-brain dominant and had a much lower capacity for creative endeavors.
We now know differently. The capacity to learn, solve problems, and be creative is hardwired into our brains. It is not the brain itself that determines our cognitive abilities, but rather the way it is trained and used. Technological advances enabling neuroscientists to view and understand brain activity have created a groundswell of research examining various factors that impact cognitive function and development. What we have learned from this wealth of scientific study is that the brain is like a muscle, for it can change and grow “stronger.” When we engage more regions of the brain simultaneously, we create the conditions necessary for deeper cognition, improved memory, and enhanced processing abilities. We have also discovered that the brain changes with prolonged or repeated experiences.
Music making is one of the most demanding cognitive and neural challenges for a person, requiring a complex coordination of multiple actions to hear, process, or produce sound. Various elements of music, such as rhythm, melody, pitch, tone, duration of notes, texture, etc., are processed in different circuits throughout the brain.
Over the last decade or so, neuroscientists exploring the impact of making music on the developing brains of children have identified six structural neural differences in the prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain responsible for executive function, decision-making, impulse control, and planning) between musicians and non-musicians.
- Playing a musical instrument enhances the development of this brain region in the early years, which transfers to significantly greater academic growth across all school subjects.
- Musical training strongly correlates intellectual development as measured by standardized test gains and significant increases in IQ. The longer the students played musical instruments, the higher the gains.
- Language and literacy skills are also enriched with music because they share a number of processing systems in the brain.
- Active engagement with music impacts early encoding of linguistic sounds, which also impacts reading skills.
- Similar to sports training, children can develop enhanced motor skills by playing musical instruments.
- Active engagement with music has also been linked to an increase in emotional sensitivity and emotional intelligence, more positive attitudes towards school, better attendance, increased self-confidence and persistence in overcoming frustrations when faced with challenges or obstacles, and greater intrinsic motivation for learning.
Overwhelmingly, the science is unequivocal: music stimulates the brain in a way that facilitates the cognitive function and neural connectivity necessary for healthy intellectual, social, and physical development. This collective conclusion is accompanied by one very important caveat: for children to fully reap the benefits of music, they must have ample opportunities to engage actively in the music.
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