The Melody of Science

Updated: Jul 1

By Anwita Vedula, Blackheath High School, London




The piano is an instrument played by many, and it’s truly no surprise: the piano is known for

its elegance, and its music can be mesmerising. Playing this instrument is seen as an art that

is difficult to master, and most people don’t even bother trying to learn. However, I believe

that if they realised the relationship between music and science, they would change their

tune.

The truth is that music and science are very closely intertwined. That’s why playing the piano

has countless benefits for the brain. Nonetheless, it can be a challenging experience - whether

you have just started learning or if you’re practising. When learning, it’s important to

remember key facts such as the note names and what the notes look like. While practising,

pianists can struggle with overcoming left or right-handedness, a trait that is innate to many

people. It can be hard because while playing, a pianist must use their right hand to play the

melody and their left to play the additional notes. Additionally, musicians must persevere

through finger fatigue, which can be tiring. It can be frustrating when you have to face such a

problem, so why should you bother about it at all? Here’s why.

Firstly, playing the piano greatly contributes to the prevention of brain processing, memory

loss, and ageing. American neuroscientist Nina Kraus, who is a professor of neurobiology at

Northwestern University, Illinois, is actually the first to provide evidence for this. She

conducted an experiment that eighty-seven people were a part of, and their ages ranged from

eighteen years to sixty-five years old. These people all had normal hearing, and around half

of the subjects took piano lessons and continued to play often. The other half barely took any

lessons and were not musicians. In her experiment, Kraus and her team attached electrodes to

the heads of all participants. Electrodes are pads that are attached to the skin and allow the

electric current to be recorded. The reason for using the electrodes was to measure “neural

timing” or how fast it takes for the brain to process an auditory signal (such as a series of

sounds or spoken messages). The faster the neural timing of each participant, the lesser the

chance of them ever developing memory/hearing loss. Kraus and her colleagues discovered

that those who were not musicians scored far worse than those who were musically active in

their lives. She then concluded that music plays a very crucial role in hindering memory loss

and slow brain processing.

Furthermore, playing the piano

strongly encourages the connection

between the different parts of the

frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal

lobe manages cognitive functions

such as memory, problem-solving,

and social interaction. A research

investigation conducted by Dr. Ana


Pinho, who works at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, found that the medial

prefrontal cortex becomes very active while playing the piano. The medial prefrontal cortex

is the part of the frontal lobe that helps with creativity. Thirty-nine students from the Royal

College of Music in Stockholm participated in Dr. Pinho 's experiment. They had different

levels of knowledge for classical and jazz piano. When they were laid down in the scanner,

the pianists were asked to play their favourite piece, though at times they were prompted to

play something particularly happy/sad. At the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego

in 2018, Dr. Pinho said the scans revealed “...training led to more automation and higher

functional connectivity between regions that are important for creative playing.” This means

that pianists possess the unique ability to think outside of the box because of their training.

Dr. Pinho also stated that greater connectivity improved the overall efficiency of these brain

regions, which means that pianists’ abilities to recall, solve problems, and understand

information are enhanced.

Finally, playing the piano can stimulate innovation and individuality. One way this can

happen is by improvising. Improvisation is a technique that involves performing without any

preparation or making up the notes as you go along; it requires a great deal of concentration

but also creativity. Gottfried Schlaug, the director of the neuroimaging lab at Harvard

Medical School in Boston, supports this. He talks about the relationship between

improvisation and creativity; he says, “Improvisation is one way into creativity. These tools

allow us to understand what brain regions are involved in creative thought and in coming up

with new ideas.” Schlaug emphasises how vital this relationship is because of the effect it can

have on society: “...And from a societal perspective, it’s always important to strengthen

creativity because it is the seed for new developments and new ideas.”


References:


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