I got a very interesting book as a Christmas present – Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. It’s an examination of how music can affect our brains through the stories and experiences of different people. The book doesn’t just concern itself with musicians, as music can have an affect on anyone even people who might consider themselves as non-musical. I am only about a quarter of the way through the book but was just reading about how music can physically alter our brains. The process of playing a musical instrument – all that practice, repetition, moving fingers, hand-eye coordination, reading notation – can enlarge certain areas of the brain. This part caught my attention “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.”
I can remember a point when the catchphrase of the day was that ‘music makes you smarter’ and he references in the book the Mozart effect, whereby it was popularly believed that listening to classical music would increase intelligence. (Apparently the original research was that listening to Mozart would temporarily affect abstract spatial reasoning). So, while listening might not make me smarter, exposure to music and in particular learning a musical instrument stimulates so many areas of the brain that “music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.”
I know from teaching a lot of children and especially teenagers when approaching exams, it is very difficult for them to take the time to practice as it is seen as time not spent studying their other subjects. Everyone needs a break when doing intense study and I have always encouraged such students to try to use their instrument practice as a break in their studies. Hopefully parents will see that playing/practicing a musical instrument while not conforming to the usual idea of studying can in fact help to stimulate the very areas of the brain that are needed for more conventional study and there is no reason why the two could not work hand in hand.
For anyone wishing to further investigate the matter try:
Gaser and Schlaug 2003
Hutchinson, Lee, Gaab and Schlaur 2003
Nina Kraus, Mussacchia et al.