What if a large number of scientific studies found there was one activity that could improve our cognitive function, help our memory systems work effectively, help us learn language, help us moderate our emotional states, help us solve complex problems and help our brains be healthier into later life? And what if that activity was also enjoyable for everyone involved?

Dr Anita Collins, a music educator with an interest in research showing the impact of music learning on brain development of school-aged children, contends that there is one such activity that can achieve this, and that activity is music education. 

I share some of the salient points from her article, as it is such interesting reading. Dr Collins explains that we have learned how music education improves working memory, phonemic awareness, development of complex spatial skills, impulse control development, auditory development that protects our brains from ageing, and reading and comprehension skills. In fact, learning music is a full brain workout.

She advocates that learning a musical instrument and skills like clapping in time, singing in tune and moving to music are some of the most complex cognitive activities the brain can undertake. This is because they involve the auditory, motor and visual cortices communicating at an astonishingly fast rate, while the cognitive, reward and sensory networks are sharing information, and the perception, emotion and cognition networks are making personal meaning from all the logical information the brain is processing.

Evidently, music learning develops an extensive list of skills and abilities, which can be sorted under three main areas – language development, executive skills and social skills development. After doing something so complex, our brains look at other tasks like reading, problem solving and conceptualisation and say: “Well, this is easy in comparison to music learning!”

So, how does learning music improve brain development?  The parts of the brain that are responsible for learning music and language are overlapping. This means we hear music as language when we are babies, and we use that understanding to then learn how to decode language and speak it. This is why musically trained children tend to acquire language quicker, learn how to read earlier and develop comprehension skills earlier. This is the very foundation of all learning at school: the ability to use language.

The act of learning music requires children to use many different parts of their brains at once. One particular area that gets a great workout is the prefrontal cortex, where our executive functions live — the area where we very slowly, through our entire school career, learn how to manage ourselves.

Music learning requires the use of the executive system (in a small way), every single time we pick up an instrument and do a musical activity. It is the slow, permanent and effective development of the most complex part of our brains. Playing music in a group, whether keeping a beat or playing a symphony, requires subtle, non-verbal social skills. These are the manners and explicit behaviours we work so hard to teach our children, whether as parents or teachers. These are the subtle, deeply human social skills that employers seek when they interview someone. These serve musically trained children well into adulthood as they develop solid relationships, manage their wellbeing, and are empathic and compassionate towards others.

Dr Collins has a very strong belief regarding the big myth about music education, and shares that she often hears parents say, “My children aren’t going to be concert pianists so why should they keep learning music?”

It's a fair question, but one that's informed by old thinking and a lack of understanding of the new research. Music is a wonderful art form and one that will enrich your children regardless of how proficient they become. Learning music to pursue it as a profession is not the point of music education for every child in school.

Learning music provides children with the cognitive foundations for effective learning, which ultimately helps them become confident learners, ready to make the most of their education.

Finally, music brings such joy which is reason enough for one to study it!  At Somerville House we see the benefit of music education and offer our students a vast range of Choirs, Band Ensembles and String Ensembles to join, where students can share their love of learning and performing music.

Life would be very dull without music. Where would we be without the music makers? 

To learn more about Dr Collins and her research about the benefits of music education, visit her website: About - Bigger Better Brains.

Mrs Kim Kiepe