Musicians May Make Better Scientists

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About 20 years ago, Miller and Coen published "The Case for Music in the Schools." In this article, they noted that 66 percent of music major applicants were accepted into medical schools, whereas only 44 percent of biochemistry majors got in. The authors speculated that med schools liked musicians because they work hard, can relieve stress more effectively, and seem like more rounded applicants in general.

As a student double majoring in piano and biology, all of this makes sense to me. When I tell people about my chosen areas of study, some people think I’m crazy, while some find it weird and interesting. Others ask what overlap there is between the two fields, since most people don’t think of them being much related at all.

I completely disagree. The further I get in my education, the more I realize that the two pursuits are very similar. I now believe that studying piano at an early age prepared me to study science later on.

There are a wealth of studies on the effects of musical training on cognitive and social skills. Many of them have found significant benefits, especially in areas such as spatio-temporal reasoning, language skills, self-esteem, and persistence. Some found increased grey matter, which is associated with increased skills, all over the brain as a result of musical training. Other areas, such as general academic performance and reading skills, are more hotly debated. But, everyone agrees that music requires lots of persistence and complex thinking.

When Miller and Coen said that musicians make good medical school applicants, I don’t think these generic benefits were the only factors involved. I think the two fields are more closely tied together than most people think. After all, playing music requires an extraordinary attention to detail and spatial awareness, both things I would strongly associate with effective medical professionals. And, stress is something both musicians and doctors are constantly dealing with, more so than most other jobs.

I’ve also come to think that musical training is very similar to research. Both have long term goals with a lot of work required to reach them. In music, it takes countless hours of repetition to get comfortable enough to play a piece through. In science, it takes weeks to carry out experiments before all the data is ready for analysis.

Neither process is smooth, either. In science there are unexpected results, or no significant results at all, while in music there are technical difficulties that arise as fast as you can fix them. Also, they are both very solitary practices, though there are always colleagues and mentors around to help. But, it’s only at the concert or conference that you, as a musician or scientist, finally share everything with the world.

The outside world also sees the two fields with a similar misunderstanding. They only hear the pianist’s recital, and they only see the published research article. A lot of people don’t think about the weeks of hard and fairly repetitive work that goes into it. Since they miss the process, it makes sense that they would miss the similarities.

Maybe it’s time for more kids to take up instruments. Who knows? We might end up with better doctors.

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