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  • Jody B. Miller

How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain - Anita Collins

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

I wanted to share this Ted-Ed talk from #AnitaCollins because I not only believe it to be true, I have lived it.

My son Christopher only spoke in vowels when he was young. I - I - Ii. Hi, I'm Chris.

As a family we understood him, but no one else did.

I mainstreamed Chris (which means I put him in public school with the normal kids). The normal kid's parents were not happy. It was a very tough road. The stares, snorts as I walked by, and direct confrontations were difficult to absorb:

"You're taking money that should go to my kid, just so your kid can have a personal aid. He'll never be smart anyway, just put him in special ed." That was the gist of it. But I pushed on...

I went to IEP meetings (these are yearly meetings where everyone involved in your child's education, including the school psychologist, tells you what your child can't do and why they shouldn't be mainstreamed). I cried a lot after these meetings.

During one of them, I had reached a point where enough was enough.

"Tell me what Chris CAN do," I said. What CAN Chris do?

The energy changed that day, and the team of educators began to look for the promise in Chris. His potential.

"I will teach Chris to read," his Kindergarten teacher spoke out. "I promise you. Chris will read."

I cried right on the spot.

The rest of the group told me that they wanted Chris to speak with a computer. I refused.

That day, I promised to find a way to teach Chris to talk.

And that's where this amazing speech by #AnitaCollins comes in.

I sang a lot with my kids. Two of my children were learning how to play the piano (the Suzuki method) and Chris would sit with me during lessons while I took notes. Parents were required to be in attendance for every lesson. I was not helicoptering.

After my other two practiced, I would sit Chris at the keys and he would bang on them. Sometimes just one finger would play. He was engrossed in the sound he was producing. I wondered if it connected to his brain.

How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain - Anita Collins

Here are my 3 kids at the piano. Chris is on the right.

I started making up songs to the barely coherent tunes he created.

Songs about everything and anything. Brushing teeth, walking to the store, Halloween stories,... whatever.

And then one afternoon I heard a consonant come out of his mouth. It was only once. But it was the beginning of a word in a song I made up. 'B.'

It was then I got the idea to meet with his private speech therapist. Yes, raising an autistic spectrum child can cost a lot of money in therapy (but there are ways to get therapy for free too...more on that in a later blog), and at that point in Chris's life, being understood without the use of a computer was #1 to me.

So I met with his therapist and we agreed to have me play and sing songs that focused on the sound the therapist was working on.

Within a year, Chris had all the sounds and he could talk. It wasn't completely understood, but when he slowed down, others could decipher what he was saying. I cried then too.

I attribute much of that success to music.

Oh, and guess what? Chris's Kindergarten teacher DID teach him to read. Chris is an excellent reader to this day. Thank you Miss Wong!

Here is Anita's Ted Ed Talk and Theory...

Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain? On the outside, they may look calm and focused, reading the music and making the precise and practiced movements required.

But inside their brains, there's a party going on. How do we know this? Well, in the last few decades, neuroscientists have made enormous breakthroughs in understanding how our brains work by monitoring them in real-time with instruments like fMRI and PET scanners.

When people are hooked up to these machines, tasks, such as reading or doing math problems, each has corresponding areas of the brain where activity can be observed. But when researchers got the participants to listen to music, they saw fireworks.

Multiple areas of their brains were lighting up at once, as they processed the sound, took it apart to understand elements like melody and rhythm, and then put it all back together into a unified musical experience.

And our brains do all this work in the split second between when we first hear the music and when our foot starts to tap along. But when scientists turned from observing the brains of music listeners to those of musicians, the little backyard fireworks became a jubilee.

It turns out that while listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing music is the brain's equivalent of a full-body workout. The neuroscientists saw multiple areas of the brain light up, simultaneously processing different information in intricate, interrelated, and astonishingly fast sequences.

But what is it about making music that sets the brain alight? The research is still fairly new, but neuroscientists have a pretty good idea.

Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once, especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices.

As with any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities. The most obvious difference between listening to music and playing it is that the latter requires fine motor skills, which are controlled in both hemispheres of the brain.

It also combines the linguistic and mathematical precision, in which the left hemisphere is more involved, with the novel and creative content that the right excels in. For these reasons, playing music has been found to increase the volume and activity in the brain's corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres, allowing messages to get across the brain faster and through more diverse routes.

This may allow musicians to solve problems more effectively and creatively, in both academic and social settings. Because making music also involves crafting and understanding its emotional content and message, musicians often have higher levels of executive function, a category of interlinked tasks that includes planning, strategizing, and attention to detail and requires simultaneous analysis of both cognitive and emotional aspects.

This ability also has an impact on how our memory systems work. And, indeed, musicians exhibit enhanced memory functions, creating, storing, and retrieving memories more quickly and efficiently.

QUICK NOTE HERE: Chris is a savant when it comes to memory of number sequences, addresses, and directions. He remembers them all even from when he was 3. Interesting...

Studies have found that musicians appear to use their highly connected brains to give each memory multiple tags, such as a conceptual tag, an emotional tag, an audio tag, and a contextual tag, like a good Internet search engine.

How do we know that all these benefits are unique to music, as opposed to, say, sports or painting? Or could it be that people who go into music were already smarter to begin with? Neuroscientists have explored these issues, but so far, they have found that the artistic and aesthetic aspects of learning to play a musical instrument are different from any other activity studied, including other arts.

And several randomized studies of participants, who showed the same levels of cognitive function and neural processing at the start, found that those who were exposed to a period of music learning showed enhancement in multiple brain areas, compared to the others.

This recent research about the mental benefits of playing music has advanced our understanding of mental function, revealing the inner rhythms and complex interplay that make up the amazing orchestra of our brain.

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