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How Does Music Stimulate Left and Right Brain Function and Why is this Important in Music Teaching?
Music research indicates that music education not only has the benefits of self-expression and enjoyment, but is linked to improved cognitive function (Schellenberg), increased language development from an early age (Legg), and positive social interaction (Netherwood). Music listening and performance impacts the brain as a whole, stimulating both halves – the analytical brain and the subjective-artistic brain, affecting a child’s overall cognitive development and possibly increasing a child’s overall intellectual capacity more than any other activity affecting the brain’s bilaterism (Yoon).
How does music stimulate the right and left hemispheres?
We often hear about an analytical person, like an accountant, being left-brained while a more “free spirit”, like an artist or poet, is considered “right-brained”. Yet music research indicates that the average professional musician or composer, despite incorrect personality stereotypes, encompasses both the analytical traits of the left brain and the more creative aspects of the right brain.
The right hemisphere engages in synthesizing several different parts to create a cohesive whole when processing new information (Williams). Almost nonlinear in processing information, the right brain is adept at visual imagery. The left hemisphere, sequential and linear in its data processing, moves step by step when processing new information (Williams). Just like any part of the body, any activity that stimulates the brain helps increase its overall functionality. While most activities like visual art, computing, and language largely work in only one hemisphere, music is one of the few activities that stimulates both sides of the brain.
The right brain, often considered the more subjective and creative hemisphere, focuses on the melody in music. The left hemisphere, considered the analytical part of the brain, is responsible for the understanding of musical structure and motor skills, such as playing the violin (Yoon). Rhythmic structures uniquely affect the brain extensively, such as supplementary motor areas and the basal ganglia, especially when compared to musical styles lacking a steady beat pattern (Phillips-Silver). Nonmusical activities, such as walking or martial arts, also aid the brain bilaterally when combined with a steady rhythm (Manjul).
Music Listening vs. Music Performance/Activity
Music research indicates that both music listening and music performance have significant benefits. Several years ago popular culture was abuzz with the Mozart Effect, the incorrect notion that simply listening to Mozart for several minutes a day increased a child’s IQ on a permanent basis. While subsequent music research indicates Mozart Effect does not exist, there have been several studies that indicate the listening to music does have significant physiological benefits.
- The act of listening to music has several noted benefits (Yoon):
- Stress relief and emotional release
- Increased creativity and abstract thinking
- Positive influences on the bodies overall energy levels and heart rhythm
Music research on music education suggests that musical activities like dancing, playing an instrument, and singing demonstrate long term benefits in memory, language development, concentration, and physical agility. (Netherwood, Schellenberg). Added memory and language skills help the average musician gain a better understanding of human language than those who do not engage in musical activities. (Moreno) Long term cognitive and language skills increased for student musicians who maintained long term commitments to music by studying an instrument or engaging in vocal performance.
Music research shows that music education benefits students notably by its positive effects on the brain’s functions.
Some key points to remember:
- Music research indicates the music education benefits students by increasing self-expression, cognitive abilities, language development, and agility.
- Music is unique in its ability to affect more than a single brain hemisphere, incorporating both the right and left sides of the brain.
- While music listening has marked benefits regarding physiological effects of stress, playing an instrument or taking vocal lessons offers a marked increase in the benefits of music education, especially in regards to memory, language, and cognitive development.
Legg, R. (2009). Using music to accelerate language learning: an experimental study. Research in Education, (82), 1-12. Retrieved from the Professional Development Collection database.
Schellenberg, E. (2005). Music and Cognitive Abilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell). 317-320.
Vitale, J.L. (2011). Music Makes You Smarter: A New Paradigm for Music Education?
Perceptions and Perspectives from Four Groups of Elementary Education Stakeholders. Canadian Journal of Education, 34(3), 317-343.
Netherwood, C. (2007). Music to your ears. Autralian Parents, 64.
Yoon, J. (2000, January 1). Music in the Classroom: Its Influence on Children’s Brain Development, Academic Performance, and Practical Life Skills.
Phillips-Silver, Jessica. (2009, June). On the Meaning of Movement in Music, Development, and the Brain. Contemporary Music Review. Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 293-314.
Williams, Linda. Teaching for the two-sided mind: a guide to right brain/left brain education. Simon & Schuster. 1986.
Bajaj, Manjul. Personal Growth – Cross train your brain. Lifepositive.com. http://www.lifepositive.com/Mind/Personal_Growth/Cross_train_your_brain1....