“The brain that engages in music is changed by engaging in music,” says music therapist Michael Thaut, Ph.D. Listening to music involves the brain in many positive ways, but playing an instrument or singing stimulates almost the entire brain at once.
Certain fundamental changes to the structure and function of the brain occur only through actual music training. Playing an instrument can re-shape the nervous system in ways that will affect life-long learning. For example, kids who regularly play instruments are better at making sense of what’s going on around them and in engaging with their environment than kids who just listen to music.
“Actively making music matters,” emphasizes Nina Kraus, PhD, Professor of Neurobiology and Otolaryngology at Northwestern University. “You’re not going to get physically fit from watching sports.”
Why Making Music Matters
The benefits of playing an instrument or singing correspond with the cognitive, social, emotional, and functional needs of kids with LD or ADHD in the following ways:
- Making music impacts the attention, memory, sensory, motor, cognitive, emotional and reward systems of the brain—how we think, feel, move, and interact with the world. “It’s kind of like a jackpot in that respect,” states Kraus. In fact, it’s a particular boon for kids with ADHD, who have weaknesses in those very areas of the brain.
- It builds the brain’s capacity “to turn sound into meaning” and to help develop and strengthen language and reading skills. Rhythmic skills strengthen a child’s ability to make sense of sounds; to focus on what’s important; and to ignore what’s not.
Kids who’ve “got rhythm” have better reading, language, phonological, and conversational skills.
- Making music engages different parts of the brain to decode and interpret diverse musical properties (pitch, melody, chords, harmony, rhythm, patterns, timing, timbre and emotional content), thereby strengthening language development and the ability to respond to and discriminate among sounds.
- Making music enhances auditory working memory—the ability to follow a conversation by remembering what was just said. Having a strong working memory helps kids connect sounds with meaning in any arena, but especially in the classroom.
- Learning new music challenges the brain, making it work harder to understand new sounds.
- Making music develops and improves fine motor skills, dexterity, coordination, timing, muscle strength, and flexibility. Different instruments engage the fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders, neck, legs and feet in many ways: For example, fingers of both hands can work simultaneously (eg., piano; guitar; violin) or as a unit (eg., wind instruments); and fingers can hit keys, pluck strings or beat drums.
- Making music strengthens the ability to hear speech in noise. “Speech-in-noise perception” is hard for everyone, especially for kids with auditory processing and language disorders, such as ADHD, LD, ASD and dyslexia. Kraus explains that kids with musical experience (listening for pitch, timing, timbre, melody lines) are better able to “extract complex sounds and relevant signals from a soundscape.” For example, every day, kids need to learn in noisy classrooms and gyms; socialize in noisy cafeterias and playgrounds; understand friends’ voices in noisy restaurants or clubs; and hear coaches and teammates’ directions on noisy sports fields. Being able to hear and understand speech in noisy environments empowers kids to make better sense of what’s going on around them and engage more successfully in school and extra-curricular activities.
Making music promotes connections. Playing in bands and orchestras allows kids to bond through music; expand their social circle; and gain self-confidence that will help them feel comfortable in new relationships, circumstances and settings.
Music training boosts
- Mental alertness
- Social functioning
- Sustained focus
- Fine & gross motor skills and motor planning
- Muscle memory
- Spatial-temporal learning
- Emotional Control
- Auditory working memory & recall
- Ability to integrate multi-sensory input
- Quality of sleep
- Discipline & perseverance
- Attention to detail
- Executive function skills
- Problem-solving strategies & skills
- Language skills
- Reading/reading comprehension skills
Music training decreases
- Perception of discomfort and pain
This article is based on an ADDitude webinar, How Music Sparks, Soothes, and Optimizes the ADHD Brain in Children, by Patti Catalano, MM, MT-BC, and the work of Nina Kraus, PhD. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate lawyer, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.