The Many Gifts of Music

Research shows that making music exercises the brain in ways science is only beginning to understand


Amateur Musicians Hall of Fame

What do actress Meryl Streep, racecar star Tony Stewart, and former president Bill Clinton have in common? All three grew up playing musical instruments: Streep on violin, Stewart on trombone, and Clinton on tenor saxophone.

Here are a few folks who made music on their way to success in other fields:

  • Neil Armstrong, astronaut—baritone horn
  • Johnny Depp, actor—guitar
  • George Eastman, inventor and founder of Kodak—flute
  • Clint Eastwood, tough guy actor and composer—jazz piano
  • Thomas Edison, inventor—piano
  • Albert Einstein, physicist and philosopher—violin and piano
  • Jamie Foxx, actor—piano
  • Stephen King, author—rock guitar
  • Condeleeza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State—concert piano
  • Stephen Spielberg, filmmaker—clarinet

Albert Einstein was one of the most brilliant scientists the world has ever known. But there was much more to his life than math equations and amazing ideas about how the universe works. He loved music. “Life without music is inconceivable for me,” the great physicist once said. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music … I get most joy in life out of music.”

“Music helps him when he is thinking about his [scientific] theories,” reported his wife, Elsa. When stumped in his work, Einstein would take a break and play piano or his beloved violin. Then he would return to his research with fresh thoughts.

Most everyone enjoys music. And research shows that making music exercises the brain in ways science is only beginning to understand. It has proven effective therapy for people recovering from brain injuries. It can help people with language problems or learning disabilities. It also appears to improve memory and even sports performance. Studies also show that music training instills useful life skills along the way.

Making music is not just for professional performers. It can be a mind- and mood-changing activity for anyone, no matter the instrument or skill level. Whether banging bongos in a drum circle, playing keyboards in a garage band, or singing in the community choir, getting involved in music is fun and enriching.

Continue reading to find out what research is revealing about the gifts music gives our brains.


For a long time, biologists and psychologists believed the brain processes music in remarkable ways. For example, our brains can remember how to sing a song many, many years after we last heard it. But exploring these ideas was tough. How could they look inside someone’s skull to see what was really going on?

That began to change in the 1980s. New kinds of machines let researchers observe brain activity. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other devices could measure blood flow and electrical activity in living brains. Scientists could now see what parts of the brain “lit up” when different senses—like sight and hearing—were put to work.

How the brain responded to music came as a big surprise. It seemed logical that the brain’s auditory cortex would do most of the work. That part of the brain was already known to sort out sounds. But researchers found listening to music activated multiple parts of the brain in addition to the auditory cortex. Different areas worked together to analyze the pitch and rhythm of a song. Music also triggered parts of the brain dealing with memories and emotions.

The surprises kept coming when researchers scanned the brains of trained musicians. It appeared the act of making music put even more of the brain to work. And musicians’ brains seemed to work a little differently than other people’s. Compared to the brains of non-musicians, bigger sections lit up when musicians played their instrument.

Such discoveries continue to excite scientists and music experts. Here is some of what they have found out about people who received music training:

  • One Boston College study explored how music training affected brain development in young musicians. In musicians, the study found stronger connections between parts of the brain that deal with sound and careful muscle movements called fine motor skills.
  • A University of Oregon experiment concluded music practice strengthens parts of the brain linked to attention and self-control. Music training also led to a rise in general intelligence.
  • A Harvard University study suggested young, dedicated musicians do better than non-musicians in geometry and reading maps.
  • The corpus callosum is a part of the brain. It is responsible for interaction between the brain’s two sides, called hemispheres. Studies have learned the corpus callosum is much bigger in adult musicians who started playing at a young age.

These discoveries and others suggest music training can actually change the brain. It appears to “rewire” it so that different parts communicate better with each other. It also seems to improve how the brain manages self-control. This area of research is still brand new, however. Many exciting breakthroughs are waiting to be made.

The overall conclusion? Making music is not only a cool thing to do, but it may actually make our brains work better.

Music Therapy

Music has the ability to heal people. Studies have proven that it can be used to treat psychological, emotional, and physical problems.

The treatment of strokes is a good example. People have strokes when brain’s blood flow is blocked or uncontrolled bleeding occurs in the brain. Strokes can shut down parts of the brain that manage movement, vision, emotions, and the ability to speak.

Music therapy, though, helps some stroke victims recover their ability to communicate. They are taught to sing words instead of saying them. Parts of the brain that deal with music kick in and help patients recover their speech. It’s as though the brain switches to a backup computer to help express itself. Making music also seems to ease anxiety and depression in people who have suffered strokes.

Music training is also an effective treatment for autism. Autism is a brain disorder that limits communication and social interaction. Singing songs or playing an instrument can help autistic kids improve their language skills. Making music with a teacher or small group of students also gives them positive social experiences.


Not everyone can be a rock and roll star, or rip a piano solo that brings an audience to its feet. But most people can get jazzed about making music. And learning an instrument and performing in a group has the power to develop valuable life skills.

“Ask a business leader what they are looking for in an employee and they say they need people who understand teamwork, people who are disciplined, people who understand the big picture,” said Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas. “You know what they need? They need musicians.” Huckabee also plays a mean electric bass in a rock group called Capitol Offense.

For decades now, researchers have studied the effects experienced by people who get involved in music, especially young people. Here are some of the personal and social benefits experts have observed:

  • High school students who take part in band or orchestra are less likely to smoke, drink alcohol, or take illegal drugs.
  • Choir members are much more likely to do charity work than the average person.
  • Schools with good music programs have higher graduation rates (90.2%) than those without music programs (72.9%).
  • Students in schools with high-quality music programs score higher on standardized tests than students at schools with poor music programs. It does not matter if the schools are rich or poor.
  • Nearly all winners of the famous Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology play one or more instruments.
  • In a study at the University of Toronto, researchers found that music lessons in keyboard or voice raised the IQ of young children higher than that of kids who did not take music lessons.
  • A Stanford University study showed musical training improved the way the brain processes spoken language.

Learning a musical instrument does not automatically make us smarter. But it can teach skills that are useful in any situation.

  • It teaches discipline—to practice until we get it right.
  • It teaches critical thinking and self-reliance—to figure out wrong notes and other problems for ourselves.
  • It teaches teamwork—to work together with friends and classmates to create something cool.

Such lessons make us better people, whatever we do or wherever life takes us.
Making music is a reward all by itself. But it also brings other gifts that can make us happier, healthier, and the best we can be.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor


Texas Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse Report. Reported in Houston Chronicle, January 1998.

America’s Performing Art: A Study of Choruses, Choral Singers, and their Impact (Chorus Impact Study, 2003); www.chorusamerica.org.

Harris Interactive poll of high school principals conducted Spring 2006; funded by MENC and NAMM. For more info, contact info@menc2.org.

MENC Journal of Research in Music Education, Winter 2006, vol. 54, No. 4, pgs. 293- 307; “Examination of Relationship between Participation in School Music Programs of Differing Quality and Standardized Test Results” Christopher M. Johnson and Jenny E. Memmott, University of Kansas.

The Midland Chemist (American Chemical Society) Vol. 42, No.1, Feb. 2005.

Summary by MENC; Original source: August 2004, Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society; http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/ps/musiciq.pdf; Dr. E. Glenn Schellenberg (University of Toronto).

Ho, Y. C., Cheung, M. C., & Chan, A. Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: cross-sectional and longitudinal explorations in children (2003) Neuropsychology, 12, 439-450.

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