Music teachers often deal with clients that are children or young adults. Researchers from the field of neuroscience and the aging brain have, however, demonstrated that music education benefits the brain and cognition throughout a person’s lifespan. They also have noticed the existence of patterns of decline from early adulthood in processing speed and accelerating declines in memory and reasoning. The development and refinement of neuroimaging techniques within the last twenty years or so has allowed for exploration of how the behavior and neurophysiology of musicians may differ (if at all) from non-musicians. Music training affects a wide range of cognitive abilities associated with brain enhancement including verbal processing, intelligence, reading, auditory processing, decision-making, and so on. Researchers have also found enhancements in cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency in musicians.
Music training also may induce neuroplastic changes and enhancements. Firstly, brain volume (gray matter and white matter) increases with musical training. Playing a musical instrument has been associated with increased white matter thickness in motor, premotor, and supplementary motor, prefrontal and parietal cortices–in other words, brain volume increases occur with musical training. Secondly, musical training changes connectivity and functional connectivity in the brain. Research has found that changes in the auditory-motor network for young adults over 18 beginning music training suggest that music training can influence brain plasticity even after brain maturation is almost complete.
In some cases, older adults with at least 10 years of musical experience displayed better performance in far-transfer tasks such as nonverbal memory, naming, and executive functioning tests than non-musicians or musicians with less than 10 years of musical experience. Other benefits include reduced age-related decline of fluid intelligence in older musicians, increased inhibition, and increased executive functioning. Overall, current research suggests that lifelong engagement in musical training maintains the brain in a younger state and enhances neural functioning.
Read more in “Music education and the aging brain” by Patricia Izbicki and Christina L. Svec (Contributions to music education 47 , RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-6592.
The above image is a mapping of human brain connectivity featuring dorsal and lateral views.
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When doctors discovered a tumor in Dan Fabbio’s brain, he began a long journey involving a team of physicians, scientists, and a music professor that culminated with him awake and playing a saxophone as surgeons operated on him.
A professional musician and music teacher, Fabbio suddenly started to experience hallucinations, and a visit to a hospital led to a CAT scan that indicated a brain tumor. It appeared to be benign, but doctors were concerned about its proximity to a brain region that is responsible for music processing.
Fabbio was referred to the neurosurgeon Web Pilcher, who contacted Elizabeth Marvin, a music theorist who also specializes in music cognition, and together they developed a series of cognitive musical tests that Fabbio could perform while researchers were conducting brain scans. Using this information, the team produced a highly detailed three-dimensional map of Fabbio’s brain that would be used to help guide the surgeons in the operating room.
The surgeons wanted to know if they were successful in preserving Fabbio’s ability to perform music, so they decided to bring his saxophone into the operating room; once the tumor had been removed, they gave the go-ahead for Fabbio to play it. “It made you want to cry,” said Marvin. “He played it flawlessly and when he finished the entire operating room erupted in applause.”
The collection focuses on the effects of repetitive musical rhythm on the brain and nervous system, integrating diverse fields including ethnomusicology, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, religious studies, music therapy, and human health. The authors present aspects of musical rhythm and biological rhythms, and in particular rhythmic entrainment, in a way that considers cultural context alongside theoretical research and discussions of potential clinical and therapeutic implications.
Considering the effects of drumming and other rhythmic music on mental and bodily functioning, the authors show how rhythmic music can have a dramatic impact on mental states, sometimes catalyzing profound changes in arousal, mood, and emotional states through the stimulation of changes in physiological functions like the electrical activity in the brain.
Included are discussions of experiments using electroencephalography (EEG), galvanic skin response (GSR), and subjective measures to gain insight into how these mental states are evoked and what their relationship is to the music and the context of the experience, demonstrating that these phenomena occur in a consistent and reproducible fashion and suggesting clinical applications.
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