*This is a collaborative guest post
“It is introspective, and I want to introspect.” – Sherlock Holmes on classical German music, The Red-Headed League
The world’s greatest detective famously listened to and played music in order to hone his skills and reflect on mysteries while he smoked his pipe. Some pregnant women put headphones playing classical music over their bellies in an effort to make their unborn offspring more intelligent.
And supposedly Prince Charles plays music to his plants in order to help them grow. The idea that music can alter our brains is not a new one – if you ask any hearing specialist, such as those at Hidden Hearing – there is plenty of research to suggest that it can actually have some effect. So how do we exercise our brains with music?
To start with, we know that a particular piece of music can alter our emotions or trigger memories – a song that we remember being played at a funeral or for the first dance at a wedding, perhaps, or a song that featured prominently in the charts during an important time in someone’s life. Educators can take advantage of the way our brains retain knowledge of certain beats and rhythms – look for example at Sesame Street, which has for years set useful basic information – the alphabet, numbers, multiplication, the colours of the rainbow – to music.
When a toddler or young child takes these songs in, they can carry them in their heads for years, perhaps forever, an invaluable tool for learning. It is thought that music would have actually been a way of sharing information for our oldest ancestors before language was developed – think about banging on rocks to alert distant tribes people to an attack or a feast.
Listening to music can improve our cognitive function – it has been found by researchers that playing ambient music can promote creativity, since moderate noise levels lead to abstract processing and greater creativity, whereas more noisy or complex music will prove a distraction. But passive listening falls far behind actively playing an instrument when we’re talking about exercising the brain.
Studies have indicated that just a few years of musical training can significantly improve motor skills – actions that involve using the muscles – which can lead to better health and fitness, as well as flexibility. It can also help with reasoning skills – this piece of music is played like this, therefore this piece ought to be played like this – and auditory discrimination skills, those that help us to pick up a new language, or help children to learn to speak.
It has also been noted that one or two years of training can improve the memory and attention, since the student is constantly having to memorise pieces of music and play them back exactly as they should sound, which requires strong attention to detail.
There are whole other areas of brain function that may be affected to some degree or another by music – speech perception, recognising emotion and multi-tasking to name just a few.
This is an area of continuing and understandable fascination for researchers, educators, and hearing specialists. The evidence that music impacts on many areas of learning is growing, and therefore the importance of introducing children to it from as early an age as possible, from letting them bang on pots and pans in the kitchen to formal music lessons as soon as they can sit still for half an hour!
It also again highlights the need for people to look after their hearing – after all, Beethoven was the exception rather than the rule. For most of us, if we lose our sense of hearing, not only will we not be able to enjoy listening to music, we also won’t be able to play it. And when that ability goes, so does all the benefits music gives to our brains.