Your Brain and Music

Daniel Levitin wrote an interesting book called This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. He examines scientific observations about how music affects our brains and vice versa. It’s especially fascinating when you think about learning to play music.

I’d like to mention here just a few interesting points raised in the book–about practicing, ear training, and the effect of music lessons on brain development.

Levitin describes an experiment where researchers tried to define “talent.”  They examined music students who were regarded as most talented, and invariably found that those students who were the best musicians had practiced significantly more than the others. “Talent” seems to be a word people apply retrospectively to someone who has accomplished something in music already.

Some argue that practice is everything. Apparently everyone who has been considered world-class in their field of expertise, whether music, writing, chess, math, crime–any expertise–was found to have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice in that field of expertise. Levitin points this out as part of a debate about how patterns are developed in neural pathways, but also discusses the impact of caring and enjoying an activity on brain chemistry and on the success of building good physical and artistic memory.

This brings up a motto I made up:  “The more you play, the better you get.  The more efficiently you play, the faster you get better.”

Ear training

Levitin points out that studies of perfect and relative pitch have always involved musicians, since no one else is expected to know the names of the notes. But new studies have reached out to nonmusicians, with interesting results.

Nonmusicians were given tuning forks, and each was asked to listen to one pitch several times a day. At the end of a week, everyone was able to pick out their pitch from among several being played, and by giving each pitch a nontechnical name, such as “Fred”, the average person was able to name his or her pitch when hearing it.

In another experiment, average people were asked to sing into a tape recorder their memory of a popular song. The songs selected were limited to those recorded by a single famous band, so the researchers knew that the songs had been heard a lot but only in one key and in one version. They found that people sang the songs in the same key as the original, with the same tempo, and even many of the vocal inflections of the recording.
Music Lessons
Scientists have found that even a small exposure to music lessons creates enhanced neural circuits for music processing. It helps people listen better, and discern form and structure.

I particularly found it interesting that studying music develops a section of the brain that is related to but not identical to the speech areas. This area of the brain is apparently also used in such activities as understanding sign language. It has to do with our perception of time and how we organize patterns that we perceive in relation to time–a communications skill not developed by computers or academic homework.

The book makes clear that no one area of the brain is involved exclusively in music–it isn’t a left or right brain activity, but a whole-brain activity.

©2016 Ed Pearlman

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