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There has been a great deal of scientific research carried out in music and its positive affects on memory and learning. Playing a musical instrument has many hidden benefits that help to stimulate your brain and foster creativity and well-being.
According to the journal Psychological Science, music lessons can enhance your IQ. The research tested whether music lessons had benefits that carried over to non-musical areas of cognition. Musical children have experiences which are different to non-musical children. This is because of their unique experiences specifically related to music and music practice.
For example, music lessons involve regular practice; memorising lengthy passages of music; extended periods of concentration; reading musical notation; fine-tuning motor skills and manual dexterity; and learning about musical theory. These, and many others, could have a huge positive impact on cognition and intelligence during early childhood formative years.
Scientists took a sample of 144 children aged six years old whom they split into four groups. Two of these groups received music lessons for a full year. The other two were control groups who received either drama lessons or no lessons whatsoever. The following year, those who took no lessons received keyboard lessons.
The findings were that those who took music had larger increases in overall IQ compared to the two control groups.
Music is known to be a highly effective tool for aiding your memory.
In what way is it able to achieve this? How and why does it improve your intelligence and enhance other non-musical areas to make us a better all-rounder?
Read on below.
1. Learning a musical instrument accesses your other “intelligences”
There has been a lot of discussion on the so-called “Mozart Effect”. This is a theory that listening to Mozart or certain types of music when you are young makes you smarter.
I’m not referring to that here. It has been mostly debunked as unscientific.
One problem is that it takes a more passive approach where you’re only listening to music rather than actually performing it.
Think of it this way: if you only watched swimming on TV, you could pick up some tips. However, you’d never actually learn to swim or reap its benefits until you took a dip in the pool yourself and got your feet wet. It’s the same with music. There’s a big difference between sitting back and experiencing the music as a passive listener, and actively learning, playing and practising a musical instrument.
You might have heard of the theory of multiple intelligences. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner researched this in depth in his book, Frames of Mind (1983). He originally proposed that we all have 7 different intelligences. These are distinct groupings of abilities or skills enabling us to understand, learn, recall and perform in different ways. Later, Gardner updated these to 9, as he discovered other areas he could categorise in a similar way.
I’ve listed the 9 intelligences in the diagram above and written an in-depth article about it here.
Although you might think playing an instrument and learning music would only be limited to musical-rhythmic-harmonic intelligence, when you look deeper into it, this is not the case.
Learning a musical instrument engages multiple intelligences at once. It also strengthens the communication between both hemispheres of the brain.
That’s because all the rigours and skills associated with it means you’re accessing different areas responsible for our everyday actions. These include memory, decision making, fine motor skills, creativity and many others.
I’ll cover these in more detail below.
2. Playing a musical instrument improves your visual-spatial intelligence
Studies have shown a correlation between visual-spatial processing and musical ability. Someone with visual-spatial intelligence will process and learn in terms of pictures, multi-media, maps, charts and diagrams.
Playing an instrument will usually involve learning to sightread sheet music. These pieces contain complex notes and symbols which you’ll have to translate into a phrase on your instrument. If you’re a guitarist, you’ll have chord symbols which you’ll also have to read. These look entirely different to manuscript. With both sheet music and chord charts, you’ll have to interpret all the symbols before you and find a corresponding note key or finger position.
It’s a skill to be able to sightread effectively and see musical patterns and phrases at a glance and then play it as if you’re completely fluent in the piece.
One thing I’m frequently doing when I’m playing in the worship band at church is transposing pieces on the spot. Sometimes the worship leader will suddenly decide to play a song in a completely different key to the one rehearsed. Or he or she will spring a new song on the band entirely. It’s not always possible to have the chords in the correct keys as there’s simply no time to print anything out. That means I have to read the music in one key and play in another. This involves a visual-spatial skill of seeing something externally and remapping it internally.
When you learn an instrument, you’ll often have to visualise everything before you perform. You’ll imagine how it’s going to sound and what you’re going to do. Developing this skill can help you in other areas of life.
3. Playing an instrument improves your verbal-linguistic and auditory skills
When you’re learning an instrument or playing as part of an orchestra or band, you’re engaging many different senses at the same time. A study by Northwestern University showed that the multi-sensory training associated with learning music also boosts the same communication skills used for speaking and reading.
These are all associated with verbal-linguistic intelligence. Highly-developed auditory, language and reading skills are commonplace.
Playing an instrument or learning to sing helps you to develop your listening skills. This is vital in determining if you’re playing or singing in tune or whether your note is sharp or flat. You also need to have the sensitivity to hear how others are playing and whether to adjust accordingly.
Among the skills tested during music exams are your aural or listening skills. The test will typically involve tasks such as identifying whether a note is higher or lower; identifying the correct musical interval between two notes; or singing back a melody.
If you also learn to play by ear, you will need to develop your listening skills. This helps you to hear a piece of music in your head and then play it on your instrument without having worked out the notes beforehand. I developed this skill as a teenager, because I was fed up relying on sheet music. It can be expensive or the notation is inaccurate or overly simple. By learning to play by ear, I was able to replicate what I heard in a piece with greater accuracy instead of having to wait for the written music.
Studies by the University of Zurich have shown that learning music enables you to learn foreign languages more easily. You can also discern people’s feelings by the tone in their voices, and have a vastly improved verbal memory. All of these are associated with verbal-linguistic intelligence.
4. Playing a musical instrument can improve your mathematical ability.
When you read music, you’re using mathematical-logical intelligence. Most of music is largely founded on mathematical principles. When you’re playing, you’ll often find yourself counting beats and rhythms, reading time signatures, recognising numbers and interpreting patterns in order correctly.
Some research has shown that students with musical ability have scored higher in mathematical tests and can produce higher grades than those without musical ability. However, this is not always the case. What playing an instrument does though is to reinforce the areas of the brain and intelligences used when you’re studying maths.
It’s not conclusive whether there is any actual connection between musical and mathematical ability. However, there’s no doubt you are accessing some of the same cognitive functions associated with both disciplines. The brain’s executive functions govern our working memory, information storage and processing, and our problem solving abilities among others.
When you learn music early on, you’re developing neural connections which you can transfer and apply to other areas of life such as maths. This can give you an extra advantage when it comes to analysing groups, numbers, patterns and so on.
5. Playing an instrument improves your bodily-kinesthetic and performance skills
When you are playing an instrument, you’re accessing your bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. This controls your manual dexterity and eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills.
You’re building muscle memory. Or more accurately, neural pathways which have mapped themselves to these movements. Sometimes, you can’t remember specifically what the notes are on a page. However, once you begin to play, you have a natural intuition of where to place your fingers or your hands.
I’ve done this before when playing either with my eyes closed or looking elsewhere. I don’t always need to see the keys on an instrument to know exactly where to place my hands. I simply have an instinctive knowledge of where to place them and usually they’ll land in the right place!
Performing in front of others is also something you’re going to do as a musician at some point. You’ll find yourself standing in front of others on a stage and expressing yourself through your music. There is always the possibility of being overcome with nervousness or stage fright. However, the more you throw yourself fully into it and engage your entire body, the less you have time to think or over-analyse your situation. You can also feed off the audience energy to help you.
Playing a musical instrument provides you with ample opportunities to develop all these bodily-kinesthetic skills and to implement them in other areas of life.
6. Playing an instrument can enhance your interpersonal skills and ability to work as a team
Unless you only want to make music for your own ears, then at some point you’re going to want to perform with others. Doing this will develop your interpersonal intelligence and ability to work as part of a team.
If you find yourself in a band or orchestra, you can’t play to your own beat. Not unless you want to sound grossly out of time. Neither can you do your own thing without any regard for what others are doing. It requires a sense of cooperation as well as sensitivity to the mood of the music and what others are doing at that point. Competing with the other musicians for the spotlight can be a futile exercise and not in the interests of the overall team.
In an orchestra, the piece is usually written out for you, so you know exactly where to come in. That’s pretty straight forward. You simply follow your cue and don’t play out of turn. If you can’t keep to that, then you’ll find yourself quickly out of a job.
When it comes to either a jazz band or worship team, it’s a slightly different matter. Both are more free flowing than an orchestra and aren’t as set in stone.
With jazz, there’s a lot of improvisation. But you can’t always be doing that. Some instruments will take turns in moving in and out of the spotlight, allowing other musicians to shine. If everyone tries to improvise at once without some playing the steady bass, beat or accompaniment beneath, the music will clash and sound overly busy or discordant.
With a worship band, you need to be listening to and watching for what is happening. The worship leader might start off or end quietly or might suddenly change the mood of the piece entirely. If you’re determined to stand out over everyone else and not go where the music is going, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. No matter how good you are as a musician, you won’t be any use in the worship band.
As an aside, playing in a band or orchestra has the secondary effect of helping your form bonds with other musicians. You learn to respect each other’s skills and you’re taking part in a group activity where you’re doing something productive together. It’s easy to form friendships and find common interests.
7. Playing a musical instrument sharpens the executive functions of your brain and your intrapersonal skills
Playing a musical instrument engages the areas of your brain regulating executive functions. In addition to the areas already mentioned, this also includes the ability for reflection, concentration, organisation and planning, staying focused on tasks and self monitoring.
If you want to improve as a musician, you’ll need to be a reflective practitioner. You must be able to to reflect upon your own work and learn from your mistakes, triumphs and other experiences. Intrapersonal intelligence involves the ability to analyse your own strengths and weaknesses, and to form judgments and conclusions about them. It includes self motivation, discipline and perseverance, qualities all musicians require.
Learning an instrument or a piece of music takes time, patience and effort to perfect. It won’t be something you’ll be able to execute straight away without any flaws unless you’re a musical genius. Even then, you might be able to sightread a piece competently, but certain passages will require the muscle memory for a particular fingering. This is something you’ll have to practise repeatedly until you can do it without any mistakes.
On top of that, you have to practise your scales, arpeggios and other musical phrases so that it becomes second nature to you and you can apply it even to a new situation.
With a busy lifestyle, it’s difficult to find quality time to practise. Part of self motivation involves managing your time and knowing what to work on, especially if you can only steal a few moments here and there. It’s better to practise regularly for short periods than at length but infrequently. Musicians need discipline to keep going even when they don’t feel like practising.
When you play music, you’ll have to concentrate on a number of different things at once. These can be rhythm, pitch, tempo and overall expression. It may also involve focusing on other musicians and listening carefully to what they are playing so as to avoid competing with them or creating a clash in the sound.
In the example I mentioned earlier where I might have to read a piece in one key and play it in another, this requires extra concentration. If you find yourself in this situation, you need to think ahead to anticipate the music and focus while doing the transposition in your head.
Sure, it’s always possible to hit the transpose button on a keyboard or stick a capo on a guitar for an easy fix. But you can’t always do that. If you’re unfamiliar with that particular keyboard, or you’re playing on a piano or other solo instrument, you’re going to have to concentrate and transpose the hard way.
Intrapersonal intelligence and the executive functions of the brain are linked to all of these skills, which is why music is excellent for developing this area.
8. Playing a musical instrument enhances your naturalistic intelligence
Naturalistic intelligence involves the ability to relate to one’s natural surroundings and interpret, process and glean information simply from observing it.
Nature is full of sounds which music has sought to imitate. These include birds, animals, the sound of trees rushing or water running. Scientific studies have shown that whale songs are similar in structure to songs by birds and humans and make use of various phrases and themes. Research has also theorised that music and language mimic nature.
When you learn a musical instrument, you will typically zone in on certain tones, rhythms, pitches and isolate these. Using your auditory skills can help you to understand the world around you more effectively and appreciate the ambient sounds from a natural habitat.
9. Music taps into existential intelligence and our awareness of God
Existential intelligence refers to an awareness and curiosity about the deeper questions of your existence, which are often questions of a spiritual nature. Music can have a profound effect on the listener. It’s something which moves people with emotions and can point to things greater than us.
When you’re overwhelmed by a beautiful piece of music, you may find yourself asking whether there’s anything more than just the piece or the world around us.
If you’re a Christian, which I am, you’ll view music and all creativity as a reflection of the creator God. We were made in the image of God and were given the ability to compose and express ourselves in music.
Worship music itself has a special quality to it that is different to all other kinds of music. When you play or sing it, it has an effect on you that gives you a greater awareness of God’s presence. I’ve discussed it at length in this article here.
10. Music creates pleasure and relieves stress that normally affects learning
When you have music playing, even in the background, it can help you feel more relaxed. This can even improve your ability to learn.
If you’re a teacher or parent, have you ever wondered why, when a child is unable to master the basics of a subject or task, all your exasperated attempts to force them to do it only makes the situation worse? All that happens is that the child is suddenly unable to achieve even the simplest of tasks for which they would normally be quite competent. It’s the same for adults too. Maybe you’re in an exam or audition. Or you have a domineering boss or a spouse who berates you all the time. When you see that you are failing, everything begins to go from bad to worse. You begin to perform even more badly for things you are thoroughly competent in. And as you see that the other person is not impressed, everything goes downhill from there on. When you start to fail, the more you fail.
This is because of your brain’s decreased ability to function under these circumstances. More specifically, an area known as the reptilian brain, as suggested by American physician and neuroscientist Dr Paul MacLean. He proposed that the brain is made up of three parts:
1. The neo-cortex. This is the thinking cap which controls spatial reasoning, language, motor functions, cognition and sensory perpection.
2. The limbic system. This governs motivation, long-term memory and emotions.
3. The reptilian brain. This part is responsible for survival and instinctive behaviour, including habitual actions and defensiveness.
Whenever you perceive a threat or stressful situation, the reptilian brain takes over. Blood diverts towards this area and away from the higher order processing functions in the other parts of the brain. There is a “shutting down” effect resulting in the brain’s control functions displacing the capacity for problem solving, thinking and creativity. An individual’s peripheral vision becomes impaired. They end up focusing on the source of anxiety and resorting to behaviours usually learnt in childhood. The learner under stress will be resistant to innovation or new information, and will resort to rote responses.
A clear fictional example of this is the Marvel Comics character, The Incredible Hulk. Whenever Dr Bruce Banner experiences extreme stress, fear or anger, he undergoes a metamorphosis into a green raging monster. In his classic iteration, Hulk loses most of his intelligence. His speech becomes more primitive and child-like or even non-existent. All of his actions are governed by fight or flight responses, and his brain’s higher order functions become severely impaired to the point of almost shutting down. As a result, his behaviour turns animalistic and defensive and he operates on pure instinct.
This is an extreme case of the reptilian brain kicking into overdrive. Although we don’t experience things anywhere near to same degree, it’s a useful analogy to demonstrate what happens.
Music produces dopamine which assists your memory
Music releases a chemical called dopamine into your drain which governs how you experience and perceive pleasure. This helps to reduce anxiety and stress and has a positive effect on your memory and learning. It counters the effect of the reptilian brain and can diffuse the stressful situation. When dopamine is present, we have a positive and pleasurable association with the experience. This makes us more likely to retain and remember the information. Also, because dopamine is tied to our reward centre, it motivates us to persevere with a difficult task knowing that there will be a pleasurable outcome.
When you learn music and are able to master a difficult piece or gain proficiency in your instrument, you can feel a deep sense of accomplishment. It’s especially rewarding if you’ve been struggling previously with it, which makes you want to keep repeating your success. When you’re able to play that note or phrase consistently, this further reinforces that feeling and releases the dopamine so that you want to do it again and again.
The sense of pleasure that you derive would explain why sometimes musicians find it much easier in a live performance than an audition. You might reason it should be the other way round. When you’re before a large crowd of hundreds or thousands, it ought to make you more nervous or stressed than performing for one person or a panel in an audition.
With an audition, however, sometimes you feel the auditioner is already adverse towards you. This can put you under more stress where you end up not performing as well. They can think this is your true self and won’t entertain the possibility that you could be different in front of a crowd. After all, if you’re unable to do it in front of one person, then surely you’d cave in front of hundreds.
But that’s not necessarily the case. With a performance, dopamine releases into your brain as you feed off the energy of the crowd and get lost in the moment. That helps you to perform better.
Stage fright is entirely possible and is a thing. There can be a tendency to freeze up or become highly nervous and full of anxiety before a performance. The more you think about it, the worse it becomes. Again, this is partly the reptilian brain kicking into overdrive where your higher order cognitive functions begin shutting down and you produce fight or flight responses.
But you can learn to overcome it and draw on that high you get from performing which can override any feeling of nervousness. When you hear an audience applauding your performance and knowing that it has made them happy too, this gives you a buzz that makes you want to do it over and over again.
Because of the pleasurable emotional experience, this makes the neural connections much stronger and reinforces things in your memory. This helps you learn more effectively.
There are many other ways playing an instrument makes you smarter. At the end of the day, the more you engage these other intelligences through playing music, the more your overall intelligence increases.
In this article here, I discussed how music is an excellent method of memorising Bible verses creatively. But it’s not limited to scripture. You can use it to learn any other kind of information.
Since multiple intelligences are linked to creativity, this also means the more you develop them, the more creative you will become as well.
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Finally, let me know your thoughts. Do you think music makes you more intelligent? In what other ways can it improve your brain power and memory?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.