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This Is Your Brain On Music

Posted by Phoeniceus on Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I learned a great deal about playing the fiddle from my wife, even though she has never played the fiddle before. She worked as a physical therapist specializing in children 0-3 years old, and an enormous focus of her work was brain development. And I wanted to pass on what she taught me, especially for those of you who get discouraged from time to time. I may not have all the facts exactly right, but I bet I'm very very close. And my apologies if this topic has been covered before - I am new to the Hangout.

When you are born, you already have half the brain cells your body will ever have. On the one hand, that may seem like a lot (you optimist you) - after all you is still just a h'infant. On the other hand, you can't do a heck of a lot with half an unformed brain. As a species we might have evolved like most other animals - with most or all of our brains cells in place before birth. Except humans are uniquely gifted in the brains department. The size of a fully formed human brain would simply not fit through the birth canal.

(My apologies to any pregnant readers for that untimely and unwelcome image).

As a species, we come into the world with half-developed brains, which is why, unlike other animals, we are so helpless at birth. Horses stand within an hour of being born, but it takes us months to reach that point.

So how long does it take to get the rest of those brain cells? You get the rest of them by the time you are six years old. And most of those cells have arrived long before then. Think about that for a moment. If intelligence and learning were determined by the number of neurons in your skull, than you, dear reader, are as smart as you are ever gonna be. In fact, you were as smart as you were ever going to be before you entered first grade. You would probably be in serious trouble at this late stage of the game. If that were true.

Fortunately, this is not the case. Intelligence and learning are NOT determined by the NUMBER of brain cells in your head. Rather, it is the NETWORK of brain cells that matters. Neurons connect to each other along synapses, long tendrils that reach out to other neurons and pass along messages and rumors. Psst! You're hungry; eat something or you'll starve. Pst! Two plus two is not five. Psst. I smell coffee. Psst. You need to go to the bathroom. Etc. Etc. It is the organization and sophistication of that neural communication that really determines your intelligence.

Our family joke: "What do you call a neuron without any connections?"

Answer: a moron.

Yes, we are quite geeky that way.

Between the ages of 0 and 12, (and mostly before age 6) a child's brain is busy making millions of synaptic connections. Every new experience, every repetition of skills, every smell of a flower or wondering look at light wavering through trees, every note of music wafted through the air helps a preschooler build those connections. And repetition plays an important role. They have to experience it again and again. They really do HAVE TO hit that toy hammer on that toy peg as loud as possible over and over and over again. It feels so good to their brain.

[Soapbox side note: Forget college. Your choice of your child's preschool will have a much greater affect on their success in life. Or the amount of time you spend interacting with them, reading to them, taking walks, exploring, touching, smelling. Throw out the TV - would you hire a babysitter who talks constantly and doesn't listen to a word your child says? End of soapbox.]

So many neural connections are made in childhood in fact, that there are more than that child really needs or uses. Things gets a little ... messy. And so, at the age of 12 (just coincident with the onset of puberty, though I do not recall if this is a true coincidence or not), the brain takes a break and says, "Whoa! This is place is getting cluttered. It's time to clean out house. Throw out some dispoable notions, recycle some some skills, erase some sensory memories we haven't dusted off for a while."

And then begins a brutal process of culling. Any  of those connections which aren't being used and haven't been used for a while are disposed. This process goes on for several years, into the early twenties. In an odd way, I suppose, even though you are still learning at this age, your brain actually gets stupider.

I see a lot of parents of teenagers nodding their heads about now.

What does this have to do with playing the fiddle? I'm glad you asked. You see, your brain doesn't cull the synapses that are being used. In fact, even as an adult you can continue to grow new synapses as you experience life, learn and practice new skills, and use your senses and motor skills. More importantly, you can prevent your brain from culling some of those connections by using them. Use 'em or lose 'em.

Playing the fiddle is one of those remarkable tasks that engages several parts of your brain at once. It involves gross and fine motor skills. It activates several senses - seeing, hearing, and touch ... even smell for you Old Time, rosin-sniffing addicts. It uses timing, balance, coordination, taste, and discernment.  Just as a muscle becomes strong and supple when it is consistently exercised - or atrophied when left alone - your brain connections grow or shrink with use or disuse. And playing the fiddle is great brain exercise.

Truth in advertising requires a confession. Once you hit age twenty or so (in fact, really after age twelve), certain parts of your brain are pretty much beyond improvement. Your hearing and vision are as good as they will ever get. You ability to visualize things spatially or recall words from your memory isn't going to get better and, if you are like me, will de.. deter... will go away ... really ... fast-like. However, much of your brain, including several parts that you use to play fiddle, are still flexible and willing to grow.

How many of you have tried to learn a new bow lick or a new technique or a new tune and just couldn't get it? You practiced and practiced and practiced until your dog buried her ears in the dirty laundry, and For Sale signs appear on the neighbors lawn, and your spouse, whom you had not seen for days over the pile of unwashed dishes sent you divorce papers postmarked Tahiti , and then - after giving up for a night or a week or even a month - you tried again and it was ...easy. Child's play. Embarassingly, wonderfully, almost disappointingly simple.

We tend to think of skills as gradually learned, but often we hit a plateau where we need some neural connections that we don't quite have yet. Repetition and persistent makes those neural connections grow.

So remember the next time you hit that wall, that plateau, that challenge that you can't get beyond. Keep plugging at it, and be sure to give your brain a rest now and then so it has a chance to grow. Go see a movie or walk the dog (after removing the dryer lint from their ears), and you might wake up one morning and find that you cannot remember why you ever thought it was so hard.



10 comments on “This Is Your Brain On Music”

bj Says:
Tuesday, November 11, 2008 @5:48:59 PM

LOL! I'm still trying to figure out whether I'm excited or horrified by all this information!

I'm in my 50's and have only been playing a bit over a year, and I'm stubborn enough that even if half my brain cells have given up the ghost (I did grow up in the 70's and lived to tell the tale, if I could just remember it) I'm going to learn this infernal instrument. I. Will. Be. A. Fiddler. I am almost a fiddler now. Almost . . .

Rene Says:
Tuesday, November 11, 2008 @6:41:49 PM

Interesting, there is hope, that also explains why sometimes when I put the fiddle up a few days I come back better.
Incidentally, when we moved to the farm years and years ago, we never hooked up the tv. Funniest thing, our girls didn't have the "I want this" I want That, syndrome that shows up at christmas time from watching all those commericals. Also one graduated Valdictorian, and the other was ranked high in her class. We've always read alot.
Spending this weekend with our girls and granddaughter (9 months old), will make sure baby "Chloe" hears lots of music, and touches and feels. things. Gotta get her use to the feel of those strings.

brya31 Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @4:56:59 AM

Well, I hope my brain has the ability to recycle, Im sure I burnt quite a few cells when I was in college

bj Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @6:29:01 AM

Rene, I knew there was a reason we're friends! I threw out the TV YEARS ago. My son swore he was a deprived child because of it. At least until he got to college, when he actually THANKED me, since he realized he seemed to be one of the few at school capable of having an original thought. He has a fine arts degree and a job in his field, so . . . YAY!

You put the fiddle down for a few days? Geez, I have trouble walking out the door to go for groceries without longingly looking at the fiddle on the way out the door.

Phoeniceus Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @7:16:34 AM

Thanks everyone! When I explained to my wife that I had written this post, she commented that learning the fiddle is "complex multi-sensory neurophysical gross and fine motor work." I think she was agreeing with me.

bj Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @9:08:57 AM

Gotta love a Female Geek.

She looks at brains the way I look at computer innards . . . and car engines.

Rene Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @10:56:10 AM

I needed to hear that BJ. Everyone thought it was terrible doing without TV. Ironically neither of my grown girls have much to do with it today, and they certinaly don't want any children they have exposed to it.
Lets see watch TV or learn fiddle...that's a no brainer.

fiddlepogo Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @12:31:43 PM

Hey, I'm totally with you guys-
NO TV!!!
TV is hazardous to practice time, musical gear funds,
and other musical things!

If I can play a couple of instruments halfway decently,
it's partly because I've never owned one...
and the "quality" (un-quality?) of the programming
everytime I visit someone with a TV only confirms
to me that I'm WAY better off without one.

The only loss is that sometimes you'll be left out
of jokes based on allusions to a popular program,
but if you have geeky tendencies, you're used to that
and probably wouldn't get the joke anyway! ;^)

Rene Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @4:13:45 PM

I never seem to know what's happening in the new either...but the old saying ignorance is bliss, explains why I'm happy :)

ChickenMan Says:
Friday, November 14, 2008 @7:08:55 PM

I tell folks a much simpler version of this - keep learning new things, do simple math without a calculator, learn to play an instrument; you will keep your mind in the best shape it can be in.

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