Michael Spitzer

Top notes: why does music make you cleverer?

  • From Spectator Life
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Music is far older than language. The FOXP2 gene associated with speech has been recovered from Neanderthal fossils, yet rhythm and melody have been around for millions of years before that, as attested by the fossils of chirping crickets and singing birds. Sapiens evolved on the ape line, and our songs evolved from the vocalisations of non-human primates. One of the traits, however, which sets us apart from our chimp cousins (with whom we share 98 per cent of our genetic material) is that we continue to learn, develop and mature far beyond infancy.

Humans may well be born with a musical instinct, yet music training changes the structure of our brains. A baby, as well as an adult with no musical training, processes music through the right side of the brain, which deals with emotion. If you are taught to sing or to play a musical instrument, your brain starts to process music through its left hemisphere, associated with language. In short, trained musicians are left-brained. (One explanation is they have learned to hear music more like language, discerning a level of structural complexity beyond the grasp of lay listeners.) Professional musicians also have more grey matter in the motor, auditory and visual-spatial brain regions than amateurs. So music education actively changes us.

Children who are learning to play an instrument can remember 20 per cent more words in a list

In 2015, Professor Susan Hallam, the doyenne of music education in Britain, built up a compelling mountain of evidence on how music benefits children, from babies to teenagers. According to Hallam, lullabies improve feeding behaviours and sucking patterns in premature babies. They regulate heart and breathing rates, soothe babies before sleep times and foster language and social development. In primary school, learning to sing or play under the guidance of a professional music teacher has been shown to accelerate reading comprehension by eight months.

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