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The Brain of a Professional Musician

‘Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician – but they would recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.’ So said, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks.

Neuroscientists have known for some time that music has an effect on the brain that, thanks to the latest neuroimaging techniques, can be seen and identified. A BrainCanDo research project at Queen Anne’s School, in collaboration with Goldsmiths, University of London, is investigating exactly what is happening in our brains when we make music – playing an instrument or singing – and examining the findings to try to discover whether musicality has a direct link with intelligence and cognitive performance.

BrainCanDo is an educational neuroscience programme created by Julia Harrington, Queen Anne’s School’s headmistress, and developed over the last four years. It is based on the principle of the importance of understanding teenage brain function and development, mindset and brain plasticity, and is now embedded in the school culture.

We know that music can boost our mood, is a good way to develop confidence, is a source of great pleasure, and can be fun. But what if it can also help you to be more ‘intelligent’ and perform more effectively in other areas …..

We knew that picking out notes on a piano or strumming a guitar leads to structural changes in the brain. But do those structural differences underpin or relate to ‘intelligence’? Do children with higher levels of intelligence respond more favourably to musical instruction? Do children who learn to play a musical instrument develop a stronger work ethic and determination which translate to greater ‘intelligence’ or better academic performance?

We knew, too, that the attitudes and beliefs a child holds about the nature of intelligence as either ‘fixed’ or changeable with effort and hard work can influence a child’s academic performance. Can perfecting such a fine skill as learning to play an instrument change the attitude of a young person from a belief that ability is fixed, to an understanding that any ability can be enhanced through effort and practice?
These questions are what our project aims to find out. We have embarked on the research with Goldsmiths to measure the dynamic nature of the relationships that are formed throughout adolescence between personality, intelligence, academic ability, and musical interest and ability.

In the first phase, researchers tested 313 of our students aged between 11 and 16 on measures of non-verbal intelligence, musical listening abilities, personality, musical interests and preference, and attitudes towards musical ability and intelligence. The findings showed that intelligence is related to certain musical listening skills, and that there is a connection between musical ability and intelligence. We also found a link between attitudes towards musical ability and intelligence, academic effort and achievement. Those students who believed that musical ability was not fixed, but developed through hard work and effort, were more likely to adopt the same view of intelligence more generally and to show the highest levels of effort towards their academic work.

Music is a good model for the plasticity of the teenage brain. If young people can understand the dynamic nature of their developing brains, we can foster a positive approach to learning a musical instrument and also help them to recognise that musicians are not born brilliant but achieve brilliance through effort, hard work – and practice!

And using musical engagement as a model shows there is a wider link between self-belief and achievement that can help with the development of cognitive and social skills as well as academic achievement. This could have implications for future teaching interventions.

The initial findings from our research show us that those students who believe that musical ability and intelligence are not fixed but can be changed through experience are more conscientious and academically high achieving. Put simply, poor performance is not failure; it’s an opportunity to improve. We know that music is motivational; this research shows that it can genuinely help teenagers change their attitudes towards learning.

So, what next? The research will be repeated at Queen Anne’s School annually over the next five years. We’ll have our second set of data in the summer. The research will be replicated in Sutton Valence School in Maidstone. And in June, we’ll be hosting a ‘Music and the Brain’ conference in London.

Dr Amy Fancourt is Head of Psychology, Queen Anne’s School, Caversham
Queen Anne’s School and Sutton Valence School are part of the United Westminster Schools Foundation and the Grey Coat Hospital Foundation.