Music and attention

Music develops our attention and concentration in many different ways.

Today I’d love to speak about the ability to pay attention to auditory stimuli that musicians’ brain develops and why this is so important.

Our daily life subjects our brains to a huge amount of sound stimuli simultaneously. Our brain performs very complex operations to discriminate the sounds it wants to pay attention to, using cognitive functions related to the temporal lobe and the frontal lobe.

The ability to discriminate sound stimuli allows us, for example, to be able to direct our attention towards the sound of our friend’s voice in a noisy room.

Musicians can discriminate between different auditory stimuli better than non-musicians.

The Kraus lab at Northwestern* performed an EEG study and found that musicians had better auditory attention scores than non-musician counterparts when listening to various sources of speech. The main difference was presented in the musicians’ prefrontal cortex. The latter is often associated with attention and control, as well as personality and values.

The most fascinating part of this study was that the magnitude of the effect correlated to how long the musicians had played music.

People with more years of musical training had a prefrontal cortex that “paid better attention” than people who had fewer years of musical training. It seemed that people who had spent more time training their brains via musical study had prefrontal cortexes that were better at locking their attention.

Playing music alters the prefrontal cortexes and therefore influences the capabilities to pay attention to other activities in life. Being able to attend to different auditory stimuli can be helpful for a multitude of people; students might better be able to focus in school, sports players might hear each other over the sounds of the stadium and ground crew at airports might hear orders more accurately over the sound of airplane engines.

So, it seems like the time to recognise the importance of music in our daily life has finally come.


*Strait DL, & Kraus N (2011). Can you hear me now? Musical training shapes functional brain networks for selective auditory attention and hearing speech in noise. Frontiers in psychology, 2 PMID: 21716636

Musicians’ understanding of non-verbal communication

“One of the most interesting characteristics of musicians is their need to precisely anticipate not only what is going to happen, but when.

As the reader anticipates the words whilst reading, so the musician anticipates another musician to play together.

Think for example of a string quartet. When the first violin “gives the signal” to begin, the delays of the rest of the group are all inferior to 10 milliseconds. Moreover, during the performance, their synchronisation improves.

This ability of anticipation and coordination is absolutely extraordinary, even more, if we consider that it’s not just about playing a note together, but also playing it appropriately, with the right expression which is also dependent on the changing context.”*

How does this happen?

Our auditory system is able to synchronise with the temporal structure of the music stimulus, due to its rhythm and regularity.

Not only this but also other areas of our brain synchronise with the music, especially our motor system.

A musician, to be able to play together, literally learn how to “read” other musicians during a performance, recognising their littlest movements, their way of breathing and feeling the sounds of music.

“It is important to remember that, despite the age, the practice of music seems to facilitate:

1. the creation of a coherent relationship between the external world and brain activity

2. the communication between the different brain regions.

The consequence of the first aspect is to allow a more precise interpretation of the outside world, in particular, the world of sound.

The consequence of the second aspect is more far-reaching, considering that cognition, in general, seems to depend on the good communication skills of different brain regions, like a good government requires parliamentarians to communicate well with each other.

Beyond our current knowledge, a corollary of these two aspects could be that the practice of music facilitates a common vision of the world around us, through a better synchronization of the brain activities of different individuals, and a better sharing of reality.”*

*D. Schön, “Il cervello musicale. Il mistero svelato di Orfeo”, Il Mulino 2018

WHY PARENTS ARE REALLY IMPORTANT DURING MUSIC CLASSES FOR BABIES?

ENGLISH / ITALIAN

As children grow, our music sessions also change!

These gorgeous children started their music sessions with me when they were 5 months old, their parents brought them to every single class (based on the Gordon’s Music Learning Theory) since when they were curious and happy, little babies.

During these years, these parents have discovered a different way to interact, relax and play with their children, through sounds, rhythms and music. You should hear how they sing during the sessions!

Their children are growing fast and soon they will enter in the music room just with their friends – they will turn 3 soon – so right now we are working on their autonomy and independence, to facilitate this change.

Our classes follow in fact the musical and cognitive development of the children; every session is planned based on their needs, to stimulate not only their musical skills but also their general growth.

Parents are fundamental for us during this process so it’s really important to have them on board during the sessions, enjoying the music activities as much as their children.

WHY PARENTS ARE REALLY IMPORTANT DURING MUSIC CLASSES For BABIES?

They are their children’s reference so everything they do is an example for their children:

  • Everything a parent feels during the class affects their child. If a parent is anxious or doesn’t feel comfortable during the session, this will probably influence their child similarly. If a mum or dad is relaxed, then the baby will feel relaxed too 🙂
  • When parents sing or move to rhythms, they are showing their child how to enjoy music; they’re basically saying “It’s fine, we can sing, dance and move in this space”. This will help their child to feel comfortable, safe and enjoy the session.
  • In our classes, we ask parents to accompany our songs with easy ostinatos (repetitive notes or patterns): in this way children will be surrounded by richer music (called polyphony) that will support children’s musical development.
  • Playing and singing together with other parents is also an amazing example for children to collaborate and work as a team.

ITALIANO

Man mano che i bambini crescono, anche le nostre sessioni musicali cambiano!

Questi stupendi bambini hanno iniziato le loro sessioni musicali con me quando avevano solo cinque mesi, i loro genitori li hanno accompagnati ad ogni singolo incontro (basata sulla Music Learning Theory di Gordon) sin da quando erano dei curiosi piccolissimi

Durante gli anni, questi genitori hanno scoperto un modo diverso di interagire, rilassarsi e giocare con i loro figli, attraverso suoni, ritmi e musica. Dovreste sentire come cantando durante le sessioni!

I bambini stanno crescendo rapidamente e presto entreranno nella stanza della musica solo con i loro amici, senza i genitori – avranno quasi tre anni in Settembre – e ora stiamo lavorando sulla loro autonomia e indipendenza, per facilitare questo passaggio.

Le nostre lezioni seguono infatti lo sviluppo musicale e cognitivo dei bambini; ogni sessione è pianificata in base alle loro esigenze, per stimolare non solo le loro abilità musicali ma anche la loro crescita generale.

I genitori sono fondamentali per noi durante questo processo, quindi è molto importante per noi che siano coinvolti durante gli incontri, godendosi le attività musicali tanto quanto i loro bambini.

PERCHÉ I GENITORI SONO DAVVERO IMPORTANTI DURANTE LE CLASSI DI MUSICA PER I BAMBINI?

Sono i riferimenti dei loro figli, quindi tutto ciò che fanno è un esempio per i loro bambini:

  • Tutto ciò che i genitori sentono durante la lezione condiziona i loro bambini. Se un genitore è ansioso o non si sente a suo agio durante la sessione, probabilmente influenzerà suo figlio in modo simile. Se una mamma o un papà sono rilassati, allora anche il bambino si sentirà rilassato.
  • Quando i genitori cantano, tengono il tempo o rispondono in maniera musicale, stanno mostrando al loro bambino come godersi la musica; stanno praticamente dicendo: “È tutto ok, possiamo cantare, ballare e muoverci in questo spazio”. Ciò aiuterà il loro bambino a sentirsi a proprio agio, sicuro e a godersi la sessione.
  • Nei nostri corsi, chiediamo ai genitori di accompagnare i brani con facili ostinati (note o pattern ripetuti): in questo modo i bambini saranno circondati da musica più ricca (chiamata polifonia) che supporterà lo sviluppo musicale dei bambini.
  • Giocare e cantare insieme ad altri genitori è anche un meraviglioso esempio di collaborazione e lavorare di squadra.

Music and Memory

The connection between music and memory is really strong and develops in many different ways!

For example:

  • we can use music to learn a new language memorising the lyrics of a song in a different language;
  • we can play music to recall memories from the past;
  • we can sing an old song to stimulate an injured brain… the possibilities are many!

When children are involved in music activities, they need to memorise the rules of the game, the melody, the lyrics and the movement, developing in that moment working memory.

What about when a child is learning how to play an instrument? Their memory is always involved!

 Let’s make an example:

– a child to be able to read the note DO on the music stave must recall the information stored in their memory regarding the other notes and correlate them with a first mental representation, both visual and auditory (semantic memory);

– coordinate the fingers using a whole set of visuospatial, auditory and motor programming strategies that involve short and long-term memory (and not only);

– implement a set of cognitive functions including working memory, to control and balance gesture-sound coordination.

Easy, right? 🙂

A musician’s brain is different

Studies suggest that musicians have better:

  • memory
  • understanding of non-verbal communication
  • coordination and dexterity
  • learning abilities
  • attention to detail
  • understanding of cognitive and emotional aspects of information
  • planning and strategising skills

Every week we will analyse one of these aspects that are really important to us as music educators and therapists for the development of our students’ musical skills.

First one: memory!