Deirdre Moore | November 2014

Your Brain on Music: Why We Need to Teach Music in Schools

“Music is Magic”

That is the first article I ever wrote for Education Closet about the use of music in the classroom.  However, in that article I talked about using or teach music to help with transitions, or to teach or asses other content.  It is tempting to stop there and use or teach music as a tool rather than as the content. But, there is some amazing work being done in the area of neuroscience reinforcing the theory of teaching through the art of music is not enough. We need to teach the art itself.  I attended a fascinating lecture recently, and it helped me understand how important teaching music really is.

Music Builds Skills

When a person studies music, s/he gets to hone several skills that are key to success in school and in life: hearing speech in noise, auditory attention, auditory working memory, and processing speed.  Dr. Nina Kraus of Northwestern University has been studying the effects of musical training on the brain over the lifespan and has found that those even with just a few years of musical training have a markedly increased ability to hear speech in noise which is critical for learning.  She has even recorded and played back brain activity that sounds like the sounds that you hear.  In playing them back, the brain of a subject with musical training clearly sounds like the stimulus sounds whereas the brain of the subject without musical training sounds like a faint reproduction amidst white noise.

What does this mean for our students?  If these students are training their ears with music education they will be better able to attend to auditory stimulus (and not the extraneous noises that can distract our students) and remember what they heard.  What I found particularly extraordinary is that these benefits appear to stay with you for your lifetime.  Even if you only studied or teach music for a few years in school, the benefits can still be seen in your brainwaves when you are 70!


The other presenter at this lecture, Dr. Adam Gazzaley of UC San Francisco, talked about the rhythms of our universe, of atoms, of music, of our brains.  Rhythm is a fundamental aspect of our world, so it stands to reason that rhythm would be important for brain processes.  As he explained, the different areas of our brain are like individual swings.  If they are swinging at different times, it will be difficult for them to pass information from one to the other.  However, if the swings synchronize it is much easier for information to pass from one to another and create connections and a smooth flow of information.

This rhythm helps improve processing speed and decreases response time in subjects given distractions or asked to multi-task.  Through his work in neuroscience imaging, he has shown that the brain is plastic. And, through techniques like rhythm training, neurofeedback and video game training, the brain is conditioned to process more smoothly and quickly, even in older adults.

Teach Music=Magic

What all this boils down to is that music really is magic, and not just in helping access other content areas.  Studying music can strengthen our brains and help us become better learners.  What’s exciting is the effects of just 1-5 years of music training can last a lifetime.  Now that is an impressive return on an investment!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.