HomeautismThe Effects of Music on Learning
It’s no secret that music can make or break your mood, but can it have a tangible effect on how you learn?
Passive Listening vs. Active Learning

Music has been cherished for centuries,
but its role in the learning process is just
being discovered.
Library of Congress, [public domain], via
WikiMedia Commons

For a while, putting headphones on an expectant mother’s belly and playing music for the fetus to ‘listen to’ was all the rage. Recent studies, however, showed that activity gives no discernable benefit to the developing baby, but when a child listens to music as they draw; their artwork tends to be more creative. In Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, he talks about listening to heavy metal as he first writes a story.
This may have less to do with the effect music has on the cognitive centers of the brain and more about how it makes us feel. When you’re more relaxed, you’re naturally more likely to be able to carry out the task without your inner voice picking on you. Studies have shown that the benefit fades around 15 minutes after the music is turned off, though.
Actively learning how to play an instrument is another story. While kids are learning to play, their brains are making all sorts of new connections in various centers of their brains, which stick around for the long run.
Take a minute to think about the skills mastered to play any sort of instrument.
  • Tone and tempo identification
  • Motor skills to manipulate keys or strings
  • Multitasking to play the instrument, read the music, and if they’re part of a group, matching the people around them in tone and obeying the conductor’s cues
  • Social skills
  • A new and complex written language
  • Pattern recognition
  • Timing
  • Memorization
Learning all of that kicks many parts of their brains into action. There’s language, auditory

recognition, visual recognition, fine motor skills and large motor skills (depending on the instrument played) to name a few.

By learning music, these kids’ brains are actually developing differently from those who don’t study it. MRIs have shown that musical kids have larger volume in their occipital lobes and sensorimotor cortex. Interestingly, when scanned by an fMRI as they listen to music, individuals who are learning or know how to play instruments use different parts of their brains.
So, how does this relate to the larger world of education? Take another look at the skills they learn.
Marching band includes an element of physical activity and
more spacial awareness than other types of musical
By Jeffrey Randow (Longhorn Band Halftime)
[CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Multitasking is a vital skill needed in note taking, leadership exercises and other aspects of the education experience. Motor skills, social skills, pattern recognition and language skills are all needed to do well in school, too. Math is an area where musical kids tend to do a bit better, because the acts of following a tempo and reading music involve it. Take the types of notes, for instance.
A whole note lasts four beats. A half note, however, only lasts for half of that. How many beats would that be? Two, of course. This is a very simple way of exposing a child to fractions, and helps them get a better grip on the concept, because they’re employing multiple parts of their brain to learn it.
Music Therapy
Music therapy, officially known as melodic intonation therapy (MIT), has been used for a very long time to help people who suffered injury to the left side of their brain to relearn language skills.
Part of the therapy involves the therapist working with the patient to sing phrases, while tapping on their left hand when a syllable is sung. Many people have had great success with this method. Of course the rehearsed phrases show the most progress, but conversational fluency also improves.
The New York Academy of Sciences published a very interesting study hereabout a young girl who had suffered a stroke. A huge part of the left side of her brain was destroyed, which included the language centers on that side. The study demonstrated impressive growth in the remaining right language centers after MIT treatment, and her language skills improved correspondingly.
Autism and Music
This therapy may be helpful to some individuals on the autism spectrum. Neuroimaging studies of high functioning verbal individuals have shown that these individuals usually have smaller language centers on the right side of their brain than their left. The opposite is true in the majority of the population.
The few studies done with nonverbal children indicate the same type of reverse left-right development in their brains. Although about 25% of children diagnosed as on the autism scale are nonverbal, there have been few studies done to understand why this group is nonverbal while others master language.
Judging from music therapy’s growth in population, this idea seems to have merit. When a nonverbal individual works with a music therapist, that provider works to establish a pattern of whatever noises the individual naturally makes in an effort to open up easier lines of communication.
Although this approach requires a great deal of patience on the parts of both parties, it makes more sense to work with how the individual is already vocalizing than pressuring them to continue in a methodology which doesn’t work for them.
Music is an important part of cultures all around the world.
by PericlesofAthens, [public domain], via WikiMedia Commons
Overall Success
According to the analysis of over 25,000 students in secondary school by the US Department of Education, those with intense instrumental music involvement demonstrated greater math proficiency by their senior year in high school. In a different report by the College Entrance Examination Board in Princeton, students with strong involvement in musical education scored higher on both verbal and math sections of the SAT.
As interesting as these statistics may be, music also serves as a portal to gaining a better understanding of different cultures, foreign languages and history.
Take Ray Charles, for example. Although he had personal failings, as we all do, he helped make large strides in the civil rights movement refusing to play in Mississippi because of their terrible treatment of the African American population. He was also a pioneer of the jazz genre.
Unfortunately, funding for education is constantly being cut and many educational institutions, though not all, don’t function very efficiently from a financial POV. Because of those factors, along with the cultural view that music education just isn’t ‘important enough’, musical programs and the arts feel the squeeze acutely.
Thankfully, there are some organizations out there to help provide music education to our kids. Here are a few:
Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM) – My younger sister happens to be a music teacher in that area, and her kids have benefitted greatly from this organization.
Ear Candy – Based in Arizona.
Education Through Music– This one started in New York, but it has opened a couple of centers in California.
The Roots of Music – A New Orleans based organization which offers musical education, as well as academic help and mentorship.
Fender Music Foundation – An organization which offers support to musical programs throughout the country.
American Music Institute– An Illinois based organization.
The Young Americans– I was lucky enough to be involved with this group when I was in high school. It was a fantastic experience, and they do put a premium on music and performance skills.

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