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Five things musicians need to know about the brain by Lois Svard, author of "The Musical Brain" published by Oxford University Press

Five things musicians should know about the brain

You may read the title of this blog post and wonder “why should musicians know about the brain?” Historically, there are thousands of musicians who have performed beautifully without knowing anything at all about the three-pound organ sitting atop the spine. But there are countless other individuals who may benefit from knowing some of the “brain basics” concerning music that have been discovered over the past few decades.

Music communicates emotion, but sometimes the failure to wire musical information securely in the brain during practice, or experiencing anxiety about technique or memory during performance causes emotional communication to suffer. Some knowledge of brain basics can help us study and teach with greater efficiency and confidence, thus giving us more freedom in performance to concentrate on communicating the emotional essence of the music. Consider the following:

1. We are hardwired for music as we are for language

Infants are born with amazing musical abilities. They can detect a missing downbeat at the age of two to three days and begin moving to music as soon as they have control of their limbs. They prefer singing to speaking, can recognize variations in complex rhythms at six months, and have a very good memory for music. Many of these abilities are lost by the age of one because they are not nurtured, as is the case with language. Perhaps we should rethink “how” and “when” we begin teaching music to children because music is part of who we are as human beings. Or as well-known music educator Edwin Gordon said, “Music is as basic as language to human development and existence.”

2. Practicing drives brain neuroplasticity

We all have similar brains, but each person’s brain develops in a unique way based on his learning and experience. For example, the brain of a cardiac surgeon will look a bit different from that of a musician. Many areas of the brain are involved in making music, including the areas for processing visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and motor information, as well as areas for processing emotion and memory. As we practice an instrument or voice, connections develop among all of these areas through vast neural networks, and our brains change as a result. The more we practice, the more the brain changes. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. There are some ways of practicing that lead to stronger wiring or greater neuroplasticity in the brain, meaning increasingly better technical and musical skills and stronger memory for music.

3. Practicing happens in the brain, not in the muscles

Motor imagery is a powerful practice technique that involves imagining all of the movements necessary to play or sing a piece of music. One hears the music in one’s mind and imagines making the movements to create the sound—“feeling” the movements in one’s mind. Research has shown that when we practice using motor imagery, all of the areas of the brain that would normally be involved when we physically practice are active—with the single exception of the motor cortex that sends signals to the muscles to make movements. So, if we imagine every aspect of making music, our brain is practicing, and the result is nearly the same as if we had physically practiced. Imagine the implications this technique has for being able to practice if injured, if one has no access to an instrument, or if needing additional practice on something technically demanding without the possibility of causing injury from physically over-practicing.

4. Sleep may be one of the most important practice strategies of all 

What happens in the brain during sleep reinforces the idea that practicing occurs in the brain, not in the muscles. With the discovery in the 1950s of REM and NREM sleep, researchers realized that the brain is quite active during sleep, and they subsequently have found that several stages of the sleep cycle are vitally important for the encoding and consolidation of procedural memory (motor skill memory) as well as for encoding and consolidation of declarative memory (memory for a particular piece of music). Lack of sleep impairs both our initial learning of, as well as our memory for, a piece of music.

5. The visual is important in learning and making music

We think of music as being strictly about sound, but the visual is involved as well. Amazing brain cells called mirror neurons fire not only when we make a motion ourselves but also when we see someone else making that motion or hear the sound resulting from that motion (such as the sound of a musical instrument). If we are trying to learn the violin, our brain “learns” by watching someone else play and develops a template for that motion and for the sound that motion creates, a template on which we can build as we practice. So, observation and listening are tremendously important in teaching or learning an instrument or voice. And surprisingly, these mirror neurons also have an impact on how we hear a live performance as a member of the audience. What we see affects what we hear.

Over the past few decades, we have added a great deal of information about the mind and body to our vocal and instrumental study. With the recent explosion of information about neuroscience and music, perhaps it’s time to incorporate some information about the brain as well into how we think about studying and making music.

Featured image by Damir Kopezhanov from Unsplash (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Richard Waugaman

    Thank you! Utterly fascinating. A related observation is that musicians who become blind while the brain is still developing turn over their visual processing occipital cortex to a greatly expanded auditory processing cortex.

    And thanks for the shout-out to sleep! Those who try to get by on less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep are short-changing their immune system, raising the risk of so many diseases.

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