van Tyn: Playing music benefits the brain and so much more

Saturday, April 21, 2018 8:26 AM
Jeroen van Tyn

Have you ever been feeling down and found that listening to music lifts you out of your funk? Or experienced a deep longing brought on by that song playing on the radio?

Music is a universal experience that affects everyone in a direct and somewhat mysterious way that is beyond words. Music has important meaning in people’s lives whether they know anything about it or not, whether they play an instrument expertly or have a “tin ear.” This is true in all cultures everywhere in the world. There is no other shared human experience like it.

This commonly experienced emotional relationship to music is born out in the physiology of the human brain, which seems to be particularly attuned to music. In his book Musicophilia, neurologist and science historian Oliver Sacks describes cases where, when the wiring of the brain has malfunctioned in some way, the effect of music can be profound. A person’s extreme stutter disappears when singing a song. People immobilized by Parkinson’s disease are animated by music. Stroke patients more rapidly recover speech and communication by singing. Listening to music calms Alzheimer’s patients and increases their engagement and socialization.

The research of neuroscientist and music educator Anita Collins has found that, rather than activating only certain regions of the brain as when reading or doing math problems, playing a musical instrument engages virtually every area of the brain at once. And the connections between left-brain functions of mathematical and linguistic precision and right-brain functions of creativity and innovation are enhanced, to where the corpus callosum that connects the brain hemispheres grows in size and activity. This plays a role in more effective and creative problem solving.

Playing music also involves creating and understanding the emotional content and meaning that we all experience. Musicians, therefore, often have higher levels of executive function, which involves strategizing, planning and attention to detail, as well as simultaneous analysis of emotional and cognitive qualities. Additionally, musicians have better memory function because their brains apply multiple types of “tags” to memories, like a good internet search engine.

And it turns out that all of these benefits to the brain are unique to playing music: They do not result from playing sports or doing visual arts or any other activity.

So, if you think that getting your kids involved in playing music could help them do better in school, you’re right. Numerous studies show that playing a musical instrument, especially from an early age, enhances linguistic and executive brain function and results in better academic outcomes. And the longer a child plays an instrument, the better they do in math, humanities, history, science and language arts.

The benefits of playing music carry beyond school into adult life. In their book Artful Making, Harvard Business School professor Rob Austin and theater director and playwright Lee Devin make the case that “As business becomes more dependent on knowledge to create value, work becomes more like art.” They continue to describe how businesses can apply the ingenuity and rapid innovation exhibited by collaborative artists.

They cite four key qualities of artful making: release, where control of a project or endeavor allows for wide variation within known boundaries; collaboration; ensemble, where individuals orient their work toward creating a whole greater than the sum of the parts; and play. Skilled musicians playing in a band do all of these things seemingly intuitively. And the proof is immediately obvious to anyone. If the music sounds great, then the musicians are doing all of these things well; if it sounds lousy, they’re not.

In his book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, management scholar and jazz pianist Frank Barrett applies the lessons of musical improvisation to the current day business environment of complexity and constant change. The best business leaders respond in novel ways to challenges, perform and experiment at the same time, take calculated risks without a worked out plan, let go of preconceived outcomes and accept “mistakes” as opportunities to innovate further. Like jazz musicians, successful business leaders are agile and responsive as well as skilled in their particular domain.

Learning to play music in an ensemble setting that incorporates musical improvisation is a perfect microcosm for kids to not only develop their brains, but to grow and acquire real-world skills that can set them up for success in school and later success in business and in society in general.

Jeroen van Tyn is executive director of Stillwater Music, a local non-profit organization that provides music education through ensemble-based classes and private lessons for people of all ages and abilities. He is a professional musician and composer who also had a 22-year career in strategic business IT consulting. Reach him at