Can Music Provide A Brain ‘Workout’ with Lasting Benefits?

Can Music Provide A Brain ‘Workout’ with Lasting Benefits?

Most people listen to music. The brain is shown to be quite active when listening to music, even when the music is used to induce a state of relaxation. However, the brains of musicians and others who play music show significantly more brain activity than those only passively consuming a sonata. An educator, Anita Collins, said:

“Playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full body workout.”

In addition, there may be benefits to playing music, such as improved brain plasticity and complex executive functioning.

Even when compared to other artistic endeavors, playing an instrument offers unique benefits. Understand more about the full workout involved when people play music and the potential lasting benefits.

Playing Music and Brain Development

Ani Patel, author of “Music, Language, and the Brain” and associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, believes that learning to play an instrument affects other abilities. Patel said:

“On the other hand, there’s now a growing body of work that suggests that actually learning to play a musical instrument does have an impact on other abilities.”

A body of research is growing as music neuroscience continues to study cognition changes and more in participants. As Patel said:

“The whole field of music neuroscience really began to take off around 2000. These studies where we take people, often children, and give them training in music and then measure how their cognition changes and how their brain changes both in terms of processing [and] its structure are very few and still emerging.”

Music neuroscience can help scientists understand more about how the human brain works. Questions of interest include:

“How do we process sequences with complex hierarchical structure and make sense of them? How do we integrate sensation and action? How do we remember long and difficult sequences of information? These are fundamental neuroscience questions, and music can help us answer some of these questions, because it’s in some ways simpler than language, but it’s still of sufficient complexity that it can address these very deep and important aspects of human brain function.”

Executive Functioning in Musicians

Neuropsychologist Nadine Gaab points to specific evidence that may support the beneficial and lasting impact of playing a musical instrument on the brain. Gabb shared:

“There’s a lot of evidence that if you play a musical instrument, especially if you start early in life, that you have better reading skills, better math skills, et cetera. The question is: what is the underlying mechanism?”

Gaab and her team published a study that proposed a connection seen in both populations of adults and those of children, that learning to play music may improve executive functioning, such as focus, switching between tasks and problem-solving. In the study, participants, both musically trained and untrained, were given complex executive functioning tasks. During the activity, the children’s brains were scanned in an MRI machine. To clarify a complex functioning task used in the research, Gaab said:

“For example, you would hear the noise of a horse, ‘neigh,’ and every time you hear the horse, whenever you see a triangle you have to press the left button, and whenever you see a circle you have to press the right button. However, if you hear a frog, the rule switches.”

As they watched for activity in the brain and more specifically the prefrontal cortex, commonly accepted as the “seat of executive functioning,” the team could see the increased activity and improved performance of the participants who were musically trained. Gaab reported:

“We were just looking at how much of the prefrontal cortex was activated while they were doing this ‘neigh-froggy’ task in the scanner. And we could show that musically trained children and professional adult musicians have better executive functioning skills compared to their peers who do not play a musical instrument. We could further show that children who are musically trained have more activation in these prefrontal areas compared to their peers.”

Patel developed the OPERA hypothesis to potentially explain the influence of musical skills on higher brain functioning. He proposed:

“The basic idea is that music is not an island in the brain cut off from other things, that there’s overlap, that’s the ‘O’ of OPERA, between the networks that process music and the networks that are involved in other day-to-day cognitive functions such as language, memory, attention and so forth. The ‘P’ in OPERA is precision. Think about how sensitive we are to the tuning of an instrument, whether the pitch is in key or not, and it can be painful if it’s just slightly out of tune. And the last three components of OPERA, the ‘E-R-A,’ are emotion, repetition and attention. These are factors that are known to promote what’s called brain plasticity, the changing of the brain’s structure as a function of experience.”

Why Is Research in Music Neuroscience of Interest?

Those in the area of music neuroscience are learning more about the impact of playing music on brain function. If there are proven benefits that show playing an instrument improves brain function, it underscores the need for children to have access to this valuable opportunity at an early age. Educators, health professionals, case managers and community members may want to take steps to help families gain access to this valuable opportunity as part of a child’s educational experience. While many public schools provide opportunities to play an instrument, additional research will support the need to maintain school music programs in the face of budget cuts in some districts. Music has been a creative endeavor and outlet for all groups of people. Research, such as in the study noted above, may offer additional support for its use and application in multiple areas to come.


Lisa DiFalco is a leading writer for wellness and education. She has helped manage cases directly at halfway houses before extensive careers in education and wellness. She is passionate about vital issues and supports community improvement efforts.

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