There is a lot of talk about the Mozart Effect. In the 1990s, research starting coming in suggesting that listening to music makes you smarter. This is a hot topic in research, and while it’s generally agreed that while simply listening to music has a muted effect, actually playing it (and taking music lessons!) has a strong impact on math skills, verbal skills, and even IQ. 1, 2, 3,
Playing music also increases brain size, such that the changes are visible to the naked eye. That means that if you lined up 10 brains you could spot which ones were musicians and which weren’t. No other activity – not art, medicine, science nor sports does this. The results are clear, but the reasons are not. Why do music lessons improve nearly every aspect of how we use our brains?
To my mind at least, the answer is simple. Learning to play music means learning to play ourselves rather than learning to play the instrument.
It is true that there is a lot of mental legwork required to play and understand music. Physically, a high degree of dexterity is required. Mentally, music is based on how things relate. The relation between the notes, pulse, tonal better, past notes, and even our expectations determine how music sounds to us and what notes we choose to play.
This is important, but I think it misses the point. Learning to play music means learning to play ourselves rather than the instrument. Listening to music is all about sound, but performing music well requires the whole body and brain to work in concert. Through performing, lessons and practice we learn tools that make this more effectively and more consistently. These tools are, in my opinion, what really gives music students advantages in schools.
But even more than that, playing the drums is not about hitting the right notes in the right order, with the right timing, with the correct dynamics and articulation. It’s not about doing something unique, nor is it about being clever and impressing people. Music is about being yourself. Through learning to play music, we learn how we work. We get to know ourselves, and this gives us confidence to be ourselves.
It’s not rocket science. Through learning how to play music, we better understand ourselves and how things relate. This transfers to every aspect of life, not just our math scores.