Beyond Tyranny: The Mental Benefits of Playing Music

Ken Robinson compels us to appreciate that, “creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” At an excellent school concert a few nights ago, our orchestra Director did something a little unconventional, but so worthwhile. Just as our middle school students completed a distinguished performance, and just prior to being joined by their more experienced high school peers, she interrupted the concert to show a short TED-Ed video. What followed (included below) was a fascinating scientific affirmation of Robinson’s perspective. In fact, the findings are profound, suggesting that:

“When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout.”

Essentially, neuroscientists have discovered that the artistic and aesthetic impacts of playing a musical instrument are distinct from any other activity studied, providing significant side benefits, such as higher levels of executive functioning and enhanced memory functions. Many of us have always believed that music is good for the soul, but here is clear evidence that it is also good for the brain.

A few years ago I spent several days visiting another international school. By reputation, it was a very good school indeed and I had been dispatched to examine the innovative things they were doing with their schedule and a ground-breaking conception of the school day. The School Director, a genial, astute, generous man, was keen to share with me how the new delineation of the school day was going to provide for an enhanced academic experience for students and, crucially, superior external examination results. In a nutshell, a working party of the faculty had devised a “solution to the problem of the performing arts”. The problem, apparently, was that the music and drama programs were consuming hours that were needed to meet the requirements of Higher IB courses. The agreed solution was to place these programs outside of the school day.

I have colleagues who could write far more eloquently and passionately on such a decision than I. But there was obviously something significantly amiss with this arrangement at the time (and so it proved, subsequently). Things that are placed outside the school day become second-class citizens, extraneous activities, and are, de facto, valued less than so-called mainstream subjects. Today this enduring pressure to improve external examination scores is one that is mushrooming out of control throughout global education. How many times now, for instance, have we heard that the US needs to catch up with the PISA scores of Finland? Certainly fewer times than we hear the far more important question, what do our schools and students need most? Again, Ken Robinson captures this concisely:

“The world is changing faster than ever in our history. Our best hope for the future is to develop a new paradigm of human capacity to meet a new era of human existence. We need to evolve a new appreciation of the importance of nurturing human talent along with an understanding of how talent expresses itself differently in every individual. We need to create environments—in our schools, in our workplaces, and in our public offices—where every person is inspired to grow creatively.

There can no longer be any question about the critical centrality of the arts and creativity in schools. It dismays me that those who seem obsessed with examination scores tend to be the very same people who question the validity of things like athletics programs, the inclusion of all learning abilities in our schools, and programs in the arts. Such people fail to understand that these very programs are so often the things that enable students to enjoy school, to grow, to develop confidence, to find a passion, to express themselves … to succeed in exams. For we are not in the business of producing exam automatons off some conveyor belt designed for a benign conception of “success”. Surely the ability to appreciate an aesthetic experience … to be, as Robinson puts it, “fully alive” … is also what we want for our children? Music is good for the soul; it is also good for the brain. Call me a fool, but I consider it more important than any exam and the tyranny of those who miss the point.