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My Brain Is Better Than Your Brain

Why playing musical instruments is important for just about any human being interested in having a more effectively functioning brain, which may be critical to success in today's world.

Yes, it’s probably true. It’s a measurable fact, born out by some really neat studies where they use magnetic imaging to see the differences in the folds and various parts of the brain. What makes my brain better than most is that I perform the simple act of playing music on an instrument. The great thing is that I don’t even need the skills or artistry to play particularly well. Images were taken over time of people who did not play, and then started playing, and then again after they’d been playing for at least a year. In all cases, the images showed substantial, measurable improvement of the physical structure and operating ability of the brain.

It's also nice to know is that age was not an issue; all ages showed similar improvement. On the flip side, the trendy belief that playing music to your unborn child will result in all sorts of super-human abilities was shown to be false. All studies showed that the “music” that unborn children hear is nothing but murky muffled sounds, contributing nothing. This was a blow to me, as I had all but patented my “Baby Belly Bach-O-Phones” which are essentially huge headphones that are placed around a pregnant mother’s belly. Want a pretentious genius of a child? Play Bach or Mozart. Want a kid who knows how to make a buck? Play Springsteen or Lady Gaga. The “Ear Wax Vac” appeared to be selling well enough that my belly phones would be a no-brainer.  Apparently, as an idea, it does indeed show no brains.

 The only real questions these studies raise are: Why aren’t ukuleles and such standard issue at assisted-living facilities and nursing homes, where the extra neurological activity is a known Alzheimer-fighter, and why aren’t instruments handed out to all elementary school students? We mock the Asian attitude of having all children play an instrument at a young age, but heck, if science proves this to be effective, why aren’t we doing it?

 Does anyone out there really think that playing in 8,439 soccer games before a child’s 10th birthday does anything other than ruin family weekend time together? Do Ivy League colleges require that all applicants participate in a minimum of 12,000 sporting events and spend at least 45,000 miles in a car getting to these events? There’s no doubt that one can also place too much emphasis on music, and lest you think I’m anti-athletic, I’m a former bicycle racer and professional swim coach, ran a local cycling club, and has a son who’s won a National Championship in mountain bike racing.

Let's not even go into the part about how creative thinking is absolutely essential to success in business. There are thousands of computer geeks out there; only the creative ones can dream up ideas that result in an Apple or Microsoft. With the business environment changing daily, the ability to think creatively is essential. A simple hike around the woods of Madison will show innumerable remnants of papermills, gristmills, sawmills and the like, all grim reminders that in business, nothing ever stays the same.

 Now that it’s yet another new year, and you have the opportunity to make another New Year’s resolution, try making one that’s pretty easy and fun at the same time. Start small with music. Get the family out to some live music events. There are plenty around that don’t go late, and offer up some very cool contemporary stuff in a family setting. This may sound a little self-serving, as I run a not-for-profit concert series that is designed with families in mind, and also has a strong educational element with workshops and a fiddle club. But there are many others. Festivals in the summer months are fantastic.

 Hopefully the kids (and you) will get inspired to play a little. Start easy, keep the practice requirements low to avoid burnout, and above all, try to learn music you like. The studies were also pretty conclusive in that it didn’t matter of you were cranking away to the Stones or Mumford and Sons or singing along with Gregorian chants: no matter what you played, you got smarter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Susan Donoghue January 02, 2013 at 12:54 PM
Charlie--Thanks for upping the brainpower of Madisonians with the Fire in the Kitchen series! Susan Donoghue
thomas January 02, 2013 at 02:52 PM
God examines our spiritual hearts and character, he ll take the simpleton that tries to have fellowship with him than the multi talented egghead. selah
Pem McNerney (Editor) January 02, 2013 at 03:18 PM
In addition to making the brain smarter, and helping people think creatively, playing music can also make you happier because participation in musical groups and performances, as a performer or as a member of the audience, creates community. Here's one great local example: http://madison-ct.patch.com/blog_posts/skunk-misery-ramblers-get-ready-to-ramble-the-old-time-music-club-on-the-shoreline
Kathy Way January 02, 2013 at 04:09 PM
When I was in elementary school waaay back in the 50's to early 60's...we were given recorders and we were given (i think) recorders and learned to play them... I continued to the accordion and enjoyed it...but somewhere along the line I stopped and sold the smaller one I had and to this day I regret that move...
Michele Antisdel January 02, 2013 at 06:00 PM
I don't think its music per se that makes your brain better than someone else's, I think its more a matter of how you ("you" meaning anyone) use your brain that keeps its alive and supple. An active brain is a happy brain and when a brain isn't exercised, its becomes lazy, just the way our bodies get lazy when we don't exercise.
Charlie Shafer January 02, 2013 at 09:42 PM
Not sure how this fits, but there's plenty of fellowship in playing music as a group, and when you're playing with a group at a service in church, it's even better.
Charlie Shafer January 02, 2013 at 09:45 PM
Well, what you're saying is true, but these specific studies were done with music as a control as it required many different brain functions. There was the act of reading music, almost a foreign language; the act of counting and interaction with other musicians and having to keep precise time; as well as the motor skills required for both hand to act independently of one another, all while paying attention to the musicality of the piece. But there's no doubt that an active mind in any activity is a big boost.
Charlie Shafer January 02, 2013 at 09:47 PM
Never to late to start again! The surge in "adult beginners" is a big phenomenon right now, no doubt with folks like you who are looking at an unplayed guitar in a corner, or who simply are looking for a new recreational challenge.
Charlie Shafer January 02, 2013 at 09:48 PM
Thanks! It is a lot of fun, for sure!

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