Playing Music Has a Positive Impact on Language Learning
Music and language are first and foremost sounds, as we have mentioned. Words and notes follow the same path to the auditory cortex. However, they then take different paths, but while the cortical regions of language and music are distinct, they are nevertheless adjacent.

One of today’s leading authorities on the close relationship between language and music, Professor Aniruddh Patel of Tufts University in Boston, has developed a theory to explain this relationship. He named it OPERA. It is based on the observation that playing music influences the plasticity of the neural networks necessary for language. For Patel, OPERA takes into account the complementary nature of the networks in the brain (since they decode both language and music); the precision that music requires of these networks (which are superior to language); the positive emotions that arise from the use of these networks; the repetition that practising music requires; and, finally, the attention required to perform music. Together, these conditions would explain the positive effect of music on language learning.

In fact, numerous studies have shown that music training improves memory and language fluency, as well as second language acquisition and reading skills. However, it should be noted that playing music does not improve mathematical and spatial skills. There are no studies showing any links in this respect. It seems that auditory and visual areas are not docked to create synergy and that even reading music notation has no effect on the ability to understand mathematics.

Playing Music Improves Concentration
Ask any musician, in order to play music you have to be focused, very focused. It is even more so when you learn to play an instrument. As a pianist myself, I remember my youthful exercises. A two-hour session, which included a difficult new piece, such as a Beethoven sonata or a Bach partita, arpeggios, scales, studies, was quite exhausting. Studies on the subject show that learning a musical instrument improves the attention of young people.

This is a concept that is often used in linguistics and which is called Code Switching, to mean the alternation of linguistic codes. Here, in learning a musical instrument, it is the alternation of tasks – reading, playing, listening – that requires the executive and decision-making functions to move back and forth between the frontal lobe, the auditory cortex, the visual cortex, the memory and the limbic system, which is the emotional system. All this improves the concentration and functional memory of young people.

Rhythm Improves Learning and Performance
Rhythm remains at the heart of who we are: think of the rhythm of a heartbeat, the steady rhythm of breathing, and the natural rhythm of speech. It has even been found that two-month-old infants can distinguish rhythmic variations in music. This shows the importance that the brain attaches to the perception of rhythm. It has also been shown that neurons in the visual cortex can be trained to respond to regular rhythms.

If there is an explanation for the benefits of learning music, it is that rhythm has a positive effect on both performance and learning. The cognitive functions necessary for the coordination and planning of movements, anticipation, sensorimotor integration when performing a piece of music on an instrument benefit from the synchronization necessary for rhythm.

The impact of this synchronization on behaviour has also been studied. If music plays a role in human evolution as a factor in unifying and perfecting cooperation, coordination and group cohesion, musical rhythm plays a central role. Ask an orchestral musician about the powerful phenomenon of synchronization in a symphony concert. The hundred musicians are one, symbolized by the conductor. The work of American psychologist and researcher Piercarlo Valdesolo and others have linked synchronization to social affiliation, cooperation, and even compassion.

A child who learns to play music with other young people enters into this rhythmic synchronization. The activation of mirror neurons, a class of neurons that function in an individual’s brain when they observe or perform the same action, was measured. Since their discovery in animals by physician and neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team at the University of Parma, Italy, in the 1990s, they have been confirmed in humans a few years ago. They are located around the language area – Broca’s area – and in the parietal cortex.

They are mirrored because they work both for actions performed by oneself and those performed by someone else. Their role would be to enhance empathy. They are seen as central to what is called social cognition, the development of language and art through emotions and the understanding of others. Playing music in a group therefore activates these areas. Rhythmic training and synchronization at this high level are matched only by training in certain team sports.

Does playing music make you smarter?
Could learning music have an effect on academic success and thus actually increase intelligence quotient (IQ)? The results of the numerous research studies on this subject are not conclusive. Some studies show a slight increase in IQ, but these are rarely replicated. These studies must be put into perspective by considering environmental and genetic factors, which bias the research. The fact that access to music lessons is easier for the socio-economically well-off, and the fact that students with higher abilities are more likely to take music lessons, are variables that also need to be taken into account.

And there are other factors involved. It is the duration of musical training and above all a large number of variables, which influence the benefits of learning music at an early age: the family environment, the child’s other activities, attention, motivation, and even the teaching method. The reward and the context of the musical training also play an important role.

Leaving aside the socio-economic context, researchers can state that learning music increases the chances of academic success. Studies by Glen Schellenberg, a specialist in the links between cognition and music at the University of Toronto, have shown that academic success improves with music learning in a study of 171 children aged  6 to 11.

Music making: a cognitive reserve for old age…
I have talked a lot about the benefits of learning music from childhood. But what if you decide to start playing at an older age, as an adult? You can’t expect to play a Rachmaninoff concerto or a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, but with goals tailored to your ability, you can reap many benefits and have a lot of fun.

Those who are beginning to accumulate years will be able to tell you: as we age, there is a gradual but inevitable decline in the functions of our brain and we lose that famous plasticity that allows us to gain brain size and skill in certain tasks we want to accomplish. However, one piece of good news seems to emerge from a number of recent studies: music practice slows down cognitive decline. Researchers are proposing to give us a cognitive reserve through the assiduous practice of music, at any age of life.

In one of these studies involving people over 60 years of age, one group of subjects was invited to take piano lessons, while another group constituted the control group. After six months, all participants were tested. Those who had received music training showed significant gains in memory and motor skills compared to the control group who had not received piano lessons.

And playing for friends and family brings great joy to both the performer and the audience. This brings social cohesion and a shared emotional richness. For as long as music has existed, many philosophers and doctors have noted its health benefits. Music for healing has existed since antiquity. In the next and final article in this series, we will explore how music can affect the symptoms of several diseases, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to autism and heart disease.

Reading suggestions
1) Peretz, Isabelle, Apprendre la musique : nouvelles des neurosciences, Éditions Odile Jacob, 2018, 155 pages.
2) Rochon, Michel, Le cerveau et la musique, Montréal, Éditions Multimondes, 2018, 186 pages.