Einstein claimed that the greatest scientists are always artists as well; he himself played the violin, and claimed he often thought in music. Not everyone has a brain like Einstein’s, but I do believe that in order to promote imaginative thinking in any field, you need an education that encourages creativity. As Einstein also said: “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
This week, my advisor, Dr. Nina Kraus, went to Washington D.C. to meet with educational policy-makers about how playing music changes the brain. When I first started doing research in this field, I struggled with the idea that somehow we need science to validate the benefits of music, that playing music needs to make you better at something else. Isn’t music valuable in its own right?
As every music teacher can tell you, playing music isn’t just about the recital at the end of the term. Playing music trains the whole person, from physical coordination to emotional expression, from the quiet discipline of daily practice to the confidence boost of a great performance, from finding your own voice, to collaborating and creating harmony with others.
But one day it struck me that people who have never played music may not know this, and that some of those people make decisions about education policy. I began to see science as a useful translation device: If a policy-maker isn’t swayed by music teachers telling them that the kids who play music seem to do better in school, perhaps they will listen to researchers saying that music training strengthens attention and memory skills, or improves the ability to hear a teacher in a noisy classroom, or the precision of neural responses to speech.
Music isn’t a panacea. The fact that playing music improves performance on a memory test isn’t why we play music – nor is it why music should be included in the curriculum. But, it's important to understand that playing music changes how our brains perform certain functions – how we remember, how we pay attention, how we process speech. Playing music isn’t just about that end of term recital.
The brain we use to play music is the same brain we use to read, do math, and in one notable case, to dream up relativity. We know that playing music activates more regions of the brain at once than almost any other human activity: it involves sound, movement, visual coordination, emotional expression, social bonding…it is fair to say that playing music is a good workout for the brain. Whether or not it improves reading scores, we enjoy it, we care about it, and this makes it a powerful teacher. Science says; music told it so.