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Research shows significant changes to brains of musicians

FROM MATH TO ENGLISH TO COMMUNICATION, MUSIC STUDY HAS BIG IMPACT

As the members of the Great Falls Symphony orchestra prepared to rehearse one night in March, musicians warmed up before conductor Gordon Johnson stepped to the stand. Clarinets bounced up and down scales, the vibrations from the lower register of a tuba vibrated teeth, mallets tap danced over a xylophone.

It all seems so chaotic in the empty Mansfield Theater, the darkness from the seating area creeping up on the bright stage.

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Viola player Paula Jackson tracks directions from conductor Gordon Johnson during a recent rehearsal with the Great Falls Symphony.

For the musicians, however, it’s anything but. Especially as Johnson begins rehearsal and conducts the orchestra in the sweeping melodies of a piece commissioned by the Great Falls Symphony called “From the Journals of Lewis and Clark.”

The music tells a familiar story — of Lewis and Clark’s journey and tribulations. And music, which has been called a universal language, has the power to draw the listener back to the Corps of Discovery.

Science is now telling us more about music and how it affects the brains of musicians — from the social skills of communication and teamwork to structural and physiological changes in the brain itself.

For years, psychologists have told the public about the effect just listening to music has on the brain. The so-called “Mozart Effect” was supposed to make you smarter, especially if you were taking a tough math test.

While the exact effect music has on the brain of musicians themselves is still being studied, new evidence is showing that playing an instrument, even if only casually or if instruction began in adulthood, can have profound impacts on the brain.

And the musicians themselves can tell you what playing the piano or the violin or the cello does for them.

“We certainly have an emotional response to music. It can literally bring you to tears or instill in you the greatest joy or energy,” said Dr. Ilse-Mari Lee, professor of music at Montana State University in Bozeman. “And then it’s also incredibly fulfilling to perform and play and communicate, regardless of the form or style of music.”

Lee is a concert cellist and composer who has written film scores and performed internationally, all while teaching music-related courses at MSU for the past 26 years. She also serves as director of MSU’s honors program.

Dusty Molyneaux, the music and art supervisor at Great Falls Public Schools, performs with the Great Falls Symphony. Now that Molyneaux, who taught music classes for 18 years, is no longer in the classroom, the symphony is his musical outlet.

“It takes on a whole new meaning for me. It makes me think differently,” said Molyneaux, a trumpet player.

“People will say, music will take you to a different emotional state — maybe that’s what heaven is, a different emotional state — and it’s a personalized heaven, so that’s nice, too,” continued Molyneaux, sitting in an office surrounded by Beatles and Rolling Stones memorabilia.

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Dusty Molyneaux, trumpet player and director of music education for Great Falls Public Schools, makes notes on his sheet music during a recent rehearsal with the Great Falls Symphony.

Researchers have shown interest in music from an educational standpoint, so several studies have been conducted on the brain structure and function of children under the age of 10, comparing musicians with non-musicians.

Fred Wenger, the band teacher at East Middle School, is sure playing music has an effect on his students.

Wenger is so sure that he’s lobbied for several years to completing upend the class schedule. Currently, music classes take place in the afternoon. Wenger wants to see his students in the morning.

“The brain continues to fire on all cylinders” 45 to 90 minutes after practice on a musical instrument, Wenger said.

Wenger’s ideal schedule looks something like this: Band or other music, math, English, lunch, PE, science, social studies and art.

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Fred Wenger, music teacher at East Middle School, works with his students.

The music, PE and art classes provide mental energy bumps to students as they continue through their classes and after school, he said.

Playing a musical instrument has been shown to thicken the cortex of several brain structures that are involved in motor planning and coordination, visuospatial ability and emotion and impulse regulation, according to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, published in Nov. 2014.

The study may have some big implications for students with ADHD or who experience subclinical depression or anxiety.

Cortical thickness can mature as children age, and the study’s authors found that its maturation occurs more in children who play a musical instrument.

According to the study by James Hudziak et al., “Although entirely speculative, it is possible that music training’s influence on cortical maturation, particularly in prefontal regions (of the brain), may serve to mitigate aspects of ADHD symptomology.”

Wenger has seen this anecdotally in his classroom — a large band room, musical instruments taking up space on the shelves lining the walls. No clock is on the wall — Wenger says he’s the only one who needs to know the time, and he wears a watch — but there is a bumper sticker taped to the wall that says, “Tune it or die.”

Teachers and researchers have known for a long time that students who play instruments also tend to be higher academic achievers than those who do not play an instrument.

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Concertmaster and violinist Mary Papoulis tracks directions from conductor Gordon Johnson during a recent rehearsal with the Great Falls Symphony.

The jury is still out regarding the cause — do the smarter students gravitate toward band or choir, or does studying music actually make them smarter?

Wenger and Molyneaux think it can’t hurt.

Recent scientific literature seems to back them up.

One study found that executive function, which refers to mental abilities such as inhibition, problem solving, goal-directed behavior and maintenance of information in working memory, increases if children play a musical instrument.

Possessing strong executive function, or EF, has been shown to be strongly related to mathematics and literacy skills in kindergartners, according to the study by Jennifer Zuk et al. published in PLoS One in June 2014.

The study looked at both children and adults who played an instrument and compared their EF to children and adults who did not play an instrument. It showed that regardless of age, musicians had higher EF than non-musicians.

Studying music has also been shown to improve spatial reasoning skills, according to Molyneaux. People who can read music have a mental concept of how one note sounds in relation to another note and can look at a written F-sharp, B and E-flat in sequence, and approximate how they will sound.

“That’s how Beethoven could compose when he was completely deaf,” said Molyneaux.

Playing or singing in an ensemble also helps with communication skills. Nonverbal communication is essential to performing a piece successfully.

Musicians such as Lee say music has a way of connecting even people who don’t speak the same language.

“I’ve been in orchestras where I could not say ‘good morning’ to the cellist next to me, but the minute we play, it’s a universal language,” she said.

Wenger spent about five years in the 1980s teaching music to special education students. The effect music had on them was nothing short of astounding.

When students learned how to play an instrument, their reading skill showed one year of growth in just one and a half years, growth Wenger calls “phenomenal in a special learner.”

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The Great Falls Symphony cellos and other stringed instruments rehearse a piece ahead of an upcoming performance.

Music doesn’t just help children. One paper by Gottfried Schlaug published in Progress in Brain Research showed that reading music helps strengthen connections between auditory and motor regions. This could help people who have had strokes and people who have neurological or developmental disorders.

Another study by White-Schwoch, et al., and published in 2013 in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that older adults who had musical training only as children have less neural timing delays than adults who had no training as children. In effect, neural timing delays cause older adults to have difficulty processing speech sounds, especially in noisy or difficult listening environments.

Singers’ brains too have been shown to differ from non-singers’. Schlaug’s paper included an overview of research and reported that “intensive training with music may assist in language recovery and acquisition.”

Singing may also help people who have some types of aphasia, or the inability to produce or comprehend words, which is common in stroke patients, according to Schlaug.

The studies and benefits listed in this article are by no means an exhaustive list. Entire books have been written on the topic, and new research is published almost monthly.

With strong evidence that music training helps academic performance and other brain function, many teachers believe music classes should be more heavily integrated into traditional classrooms.

Molyneaux wants curriculum to be developed with that in mind. The barrier between the arts and academic topics is not solid; in fact, it may be of our own design.

But for all that, music shouldn’t be a tool only to teach science or math.

“Music for music’s sake is still important,” Molyneaux said. “We wouldn’t want people to study music to make you smarter — do it because you love it..”

“Music for music’s sake is still important. We wouldn’t want people to study music to make you smarter — do it because you love it.”
DUSTY MOLYNEAUX
But music also teaches the importance of work ethic and the pursuit of excellence. Learning an instrument and preparing a piece takes a lot of hard work and practice.

Wenger sees his job not just as a band teacher. He’s a teacher of 13- and 14-year-olds, and his mode of teaching just happens to be band.

“We’re not just learning how to play the saxophone. We’re doing it to be smarter.”

Neurologist and essayist Oliver Sacks’ book “Musicophilia” is an exhaustive look at music and the brain. Perhaps Sacks bests summarizes how transformative music is on the human brain:

“Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician,” Sacks writes, “but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.”

By Briana Wipf, www.greatfallstribune.com, www.msidallas.com