The Brain and Music

by Larry Swingen, Past- President, MT ACDA

Because of all the recent research on the human brain, and how music and the brain relate, let us ponder what actually happens in our brain when we perform, listen to, or compose music.


Howard Gardner states that music is one of eight intelligences, or capacities of our brain. We have an innate musical ability. It is remarkable to consider all the areas of the brain that are activated during these musical pursuits. 


Music is involved in various levels of our brain; from the early reptilian brain to the more recently developed frontal lobe. Different parts of music are tied to many different areas in the brain. For example:  when we are sight-singing our brain is more activated than it is for most other activities. The amount of information available staggers the brain—so to speak.


The larger picture involves how we take in this information and apply it to our day to day teaching, and our own learning.

In the book: “The Owner’s Manual for The Brain” by Pierce Howard (my copy is the third edition, this is an ever-evolving field of study) music is historically used for entertainment and communication. Dr. Howard claimed there are three newly evolved roles for music that include medicinal, facilitative and mood altering.


Howard cites studies where epileptic patients show a decrease in spiking after listening to Mozart. He cites studies that show Alzheimer’s patients improve paper folding tasks after listening to Mozart.  He states that music does not have a specific area of the brain, but has become by-products of other evolved areas. Play a variety of music as your students enter your room, while they are working on a theory assignment, or while they are stretching during warm-ups. Experiment with them, play some Mozart.


As musicians, we know other important roles music plays for us and our students. Singing in a choir allows us the opportunity to create beauty, to connect our heart and brain to express emotions through interesting and complex music. These are highly valuable reasons for music.  

As we prepare for concerts, and music festivals we can get lost in the pitches and rhythms of the music. Continue your efforts to get to the heart and soul of the music with your students. Ask them what they think the music piece is about, or how it makes them feel. Ask them what personal experience they have that relates to the piece.


For you teachers with young children, or grandchildren, Dr. Howard suggests encouraging these young children to sing on their own, sing with you, and sing with others—no surprise, we’ve been preaching and doing this for a long, long time.


If your child shows an interest in piano or violin get them going around age 3 (The optimum window for learning an instrument is from age 3 to 10.) They have the best chance of developing perfect pitch with this early music exposure. Know that repetition is crucial in establishing musical building blocks, and children love repetition. Know that repetition is crucial in establishing musical building blocks, and children love repetition. (haha; repetition joke.) Use repetition with your high school students as well and let them know it is good for them.

Many of your musical high school students have been exposed to music from early on, and have been learning piano. It is so fun to see what they can do, and how much that background has changed them for the better. They are our best all-around musicians. They are good sight-readers, they have good intonation, rhythm, etc.


In regard to the Mozart effect, spatial and abstract intelligence is boosted, student IQs are boosted, even rats improve their maze completion times after listening to Mozart for periods of time. This effect is more temporary for older brains. Young brains are able because of a more plastic neural circuitry and changeability to show “significantly” longer lasting effects.


Have all your students listen to Mozart as a brain organizer. Interestingly Fran Rauscher and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, reason that Mozart is most often used as “the” music source because his music exhibits three unique characteristics:


  • Everyone seems to like his music

  • He began composing at an early age

  • He doesn’t seem to have composed a single “bad” piece of music.


So, Mozart’s brain was likely perfectly suited to music composition, and he is the most successful composer of satisfying music.

My high school choir meets first period and I love that they start their day with music. I strongly believe that their day is better, that they are better off for the rest of their day because of that musical start. Sometimes I even play some Mozart for them on the piano.

Eric Jensen, in his book: “Brain-based learning: the new paradigm of teaching,” lists three models for teaching. In his model labeled “Survival of the Fittest” teachers can “lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink.” This teaching method places the responsibility on the student to learn from a standard program, with less accountability on the teacher.


The second model Jensen titles: “Determined Behaviorist.” Here the molding of students is solely done by use of rewards and punishments. Students are manipulated with little student input or choice.


The third model is termed: “Brain-Based Naturalist.” In this model, our goal is to see what we can do to “make the horse thirsty” so that it will want to drink. The teacher values the student and works with the student’s own motivators so the learning occurs more as a natural consequence.


I can think back through the teachers I’ve had and can fit them into these teaching styles. As we teach year after year we continually improve our methods and motivations, and I would say often rework our teaching style gravitating toward the “Brain-Based Naturalist” model because we see it works best. Our subject is human-based, it fits right in with this teaching style.


Eric Jensen states:

People who teach and train others make a vital contribution to the preservation of humanity. We must become a world of learners and begin to value learning as much as freedom, liberty, justice, shelter, and good health. We are obliged to take this assignment seriously—our collective future, in fact, depends on it.


Amen. What a calling we have.


As lifelong learners ourselves, working to instill the desire for lifelong learning in our students, I encourage all in our profession to read up on the recent information out there on the brain and teaching, the brain and learning, and the brain and music.

Realistically, after music festivals, final concerts, and inventories, set aside time this summer to dive in and see how you can improve your own teaching based on what you learn about the brain. 


Have a great time this year; enjoy all the fruits of your labors as you see and hear your students improve and perform. Encourage your singers to not only make lovely sounds but to get to the soul of the music they are singing.


Amazingly, we get to witness quite a transformation; our students becoming expressive human beings!