Albert Einstein is celebrated for distilling the nature of the universe into physics of virtuosic elegance. You may also be aware that he played the violin. But less well known is that he put his scientific achievements down to music. As he said to the great pioneer of musical education, Shinichi Suzuki:
“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”
Typically, Einstein was onto something. In recent years, research in the emerging field of neuromusicology has been amassing evidence that musical training improves brain power in numerous ways. Verbal memory, spatial reasoning, literacy skills and long-term memory are just some of the brain functions shown to be improved by musical tuition. It also improves executive function - the cognitive processes that enable people to process and retain information, solve problems and regulate their behaviour - which has been shown to be a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ.
“Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t,” explains neurophysiologist, Catherine Loveday, of Westminster University. “It’s a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way that nothing else does, and the evidence that musical training enhances things like working memory and language is very robust.”
Brain scans have also revealed structural differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians. Most notably, the corpus callosum, a massive bundle of nerve fibres connecting the two sides of the brain, is larger in musicians. Also, the areas involving movement, hearing, and visuospatial abilities appear to be larger in professional keyboard players.
As with most types of learning, the earlier musical training begins, the more significant the effects on the brain. But it has also been found that even as little as four years musical training in childhood can lead to significant improvements in the abilities of adults to process speech, even 40 years later!
So what is it about learning a musical instrument that has such a powerful effect on the brain? According to Loveday, our emotional connection with music plays a central role. Playing an instrument is also a multi-sensory experience, involving hearing, vision, touch and fine motor control. And then there is the mathematical structure of harmony and rhythm. Maybe this is why Einstein found such resonance in the music of Mozart, which he described as being “of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it - that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe, waiting to be revealed.”