How Does Music Impact the Brain?
“Music stimulates so many parts of the brain at the same time in a way that other things can’t imitate,” says Lisa Leonard, an accomplished pianist, professor and Director at Lynn University Conservatory of Music.
Lisa and her students are bringing more musical experiences to Connections this spring. They visit Connections monthly, sharing their talents and introducing our students to musical concepts and instruments through hands-on sessions. We sat down with Lisa to learn more about how music impacts the brain.
“Music touches us all in so many different ways -- emotionally, physically and intellectually,” says Lisa. “It’s a cognitively complex process in terms of what’s connecting in the brain when we hear music. And when we’re creating music, we use every sense except smell. What else does that? There’s nothing.”
What Research Has Shown Us About Music & the Human Brain
In 1983, Harvard University psychologist and professor Howard Gardner published his theory about human intelligence, identifying eight types of intelligence: spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic. Gardner believed that we all have strengths in one or more area and that we can leverage strength in one type of intelligence to build skills in another area.
Lisa refers to this theory on intelligence when explaining how music impacts the brain. She says that scientists believed that human brains process music in more complex ways than other information. To test this, researchers at MIT conducted MRIs on humans with sensors placed to record the brain’s response to stimuli. Researchers played a variety of sounds -- rain, lawnmowers, a voice, an airplane and then music. “They saw that music connects different parts of the brain and makes them talk to each other in ways that other sounds do not,” she explains. “Music -- listening, processing, playing -- draws on multiple types of intelligence simultaneously in our brains,” says Lisa.
“You won’t always see how music is touching someone, but the impact is there,” she says. “You see this with Alzheimer’s patients. They may not be able to speak, but they’ll remember the words to songs from years ago and be able to sing. Music makes a unique impression in the brain, and it’s protected in a unique way in the brain because it draws from so many different parts of the brain.”
How Her Team is Tapping Into These Benefits With Connections Students
Lisa and her team are visiting Connections each month this semester to engage with students musically. Her team introduces a fundamental music concept through what feels like a simple game. For example, during their January 2023 visit, Lisa’s team introduced rhythm by clapping a short pattern to students and asking them to clap it back. Then, Connections students were invited to create a pattern that Lisa and her team would return.
After experiencing these rhythms through clapping, Connections students were introduced to the term “rhythm” and shown how it applies in music on a keyboard, violin and cello. Our students heard songs from each instrument and then were invited to try the keyboard and cello with assistance.
“You could see how the music impacted students differently,” Lisa recalled. “Some were excited, some were reluctant, some were touched emotionally. When our cellist played for the students, one young lady, in particular, came alive. She is nonverbal but she began humming and became very excited physically. She was clearly feeling the music.”
How Parents Can Harness the Power of Music at Home -- Even Without Instruments
“Music literacy should be a basic fundamental right, not a supplemental activity,” says Lisa.
She advocates for parents to incorporate musical lessons into home life even if they don’t have instruments. “Simply turn on music and enjoy it with your child. Start by playing the music you prefer. Tell your child how much you enjoy this music and why. Maybe it’s the singer’s voice, the melody, the energy of the music. Explain your reasons to help your child consider the music differently,” explains Lisa.
Here are a few other ways Lisa recommends exploring music at home with children:
Play different types of music to see what raises your child’s energy or makes your child feel calm. Keep the calming music handy and see if it helps ease tantrums or transitions to bedtime.
Have fun with patterns by humming or clapping a pattern to your child and asking your child to hum or clap it back. Then, give your child a turn to create a pattern for you to return. Try different arrangements and tempos and point out the variety to your child.
Explore how you can make different sounds by clapping on different parts of your body -- your hands, leg, stomach, arm -- or nearby objects like a desk or book. Listen to the sounds and comment on the differences. Be creative and let your child have fun while making, repeating or simply hearing different pitches and patterns.
For children who demonstrate musical talent but lack the financial resources to take lessons, an organization called the MusicLink Foundation may be able to help. Learn more here.
The teachers and coordinators of the MusicLink Foundation realize the difficulties of direct instruction during the pandemic and are taking all precautions to secure the safety of students seeking lessons. Many of our MusicLink teachers are offering online instruction at this time.
One of Lisa’s favorite quotes comes from poet Heinrich Heine: “Where words leave off, music begins.” This crystalizes why she believes music is so important. Children may not always have the words for what they’re thinking and feeling; music gives them a chance to process emotions and experiences in a different, powerful way.