Music For The Mind: What Makes Musicians Smarter Than You

by Lauren Martin

There's no denying it, men and women alike are attracted to musicians. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but there's something about fingers on strings, eyes on notes and the badass nature of someone with a guitar in hand that can turn the strongest of us into a pool of adoration.

In our wildest fantasies, however, we've never pinpointed exactly what it is that makes musicians so damn sexy.

What exactly does it mean to be a musician? Why do people do it? To seduce women? To dream of life as a rockstar? To be cool? Whatever your ambitions are, one of them isn’t just an ambition, but a solid fact: to be smarter.

The one thing that doesn't come to mind when people think about musicians is the intellectual capacity it takes to be one.

While most musicians are calm, cool and collected, what you don't see from their cool exterior is the brain function used to create those sounds.

To many, the point of being a musician is to defy institutional structures and to pursue the life of the creative artist, the kind that doesn't need math, science and language arts.

In ironic fashion, musicians are the most adept in these skills, with the capacity to problem solve faster and more creatively than those who've never picked up an instrument. Without realizing it, they've become the smartest students in the class.

But isn't that how life always works? You pick up an instrument because you hate school, yet the skills you acquire playing that instrument make you better at it.

But why? How is this? According to Dr. Anita Collins, "playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once."

Completing her PhD from the University of Melbourne in the area of Neuroscience and Music Education, Dr. Collins became interested in "exploring the neuroscientific research into the benefits of music education to enhance practice and advocacy."

She has gone on to produce two short films, host a TED talk and redefine what it means to be a musician.

They use both sides of the brain

If you can read music, you are reading another language. If you can memorize and create note patterns, you are problem solving. If you are a musician, you are a student and this time you're number one in the class.

Neuroscientists have found that playing musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once.

While playing music, musicians are using both the left side, "problem solving," and the right "creative" side. According to Collins, "playing music increases volume and activity in the brain's corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres."

This allows messages to get across the brain faster and through more diverse routes. Thus, musicians can solve problems more effectively and creatively.

They're better at everything else

When musicians practice, you may just think they are enhancing their musical skills. They are, however, enhancing every other skill they have. Being a musician isn't just about playing music, but learning to play everything else.

Structured practice in music strengthens brain functions, particularly those of the visual, auditory and motor cortices. Musicians can use those strengthened brain functions and apply them to other activities.

According to Collins, "playing music is the brain's equivalent of a full body workout." They aren't just learning notes and songs, but skills and functions that translate to an array of real-world applications.

They have better memory

It's not just remembering notes and finger placement, it's remembering everything else. According to Collins, musicians exhibit enhanced memory functions.

Because they use both sides of their brain, they are able to give their memories multiple tags, such as conceptual, emotional and audio tags, making it easier to extrapolate the memories when needed. Thus, musicians can create, store and retrieve memories more quickly and efficiently than the average person.

As we all know, memories are important in our education. We must remember our lessons, mistakes and those moments that can translate from one experience to the next in order to learn and grow.

Their minds will last longer

There is such a thing as mental maintenance. We eat certain foods, take certain vitamins and exercise certain parts of our brain for longevity and health. Musicians, however, are conducting the best maintenance of all.

According to a study published in the American Psychological Association, the number of years people spend playing instruments directly correlates to how strong their brains remain in later years.

Due to changes in the brain organization that occurs when one learns music, those who spent years playing it help preserve cognitive functioning in advanced age.

The study, conducted on 70 older adults (ages 60-83) varying in musical activity, completed a comprehensive neuropsychological test. They were grouped by age and musical ability.

Those who had over 10 years of musical training had better performance in nonverbal memory, naming and executive processes in advanced age relative to non-musicians.