Each area of the brain directly corresponds to a very specific function (emotions, movement, visual processing, memory, etc.). Scientists found that, while listening to music activates “fireworks” in the brain, which means multiple areas of the brain are engaged at once, the act of actually playing music is the equivalent of a “full body workout” for your brain. This is because playing music engages most parts of the brain, while simultaneously processing different types of information (via visual, audio, and motor cortices) and concurrently making connections and sequences. These areas of the brain strengthen with practice, which therefore strengthen the associated functions of each lobe.
Additionally, scientists found that playing music increases both volume and activity of the brain’s corpus callosum, a broad band of nerve fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, ultimately creating a more stable pathway for messages to travel at a faster, more diverse rate. What this means is that people who play music are more effective problem solvers, and are able to make decisions more quickly, efficiently, and creatively – attributing to their distinct ability to “jam” with players without anticipation of what might come next.
In addition to problem solving, musicians also have higher levels of executive function, which can account for their ability to improvise. Since making music involves the crafting and understanding of different messages and emotional content, musicians have strengthened abilities to plan, strategize, and pay attention to detail. We see this all the time in the jam band scene, and find it most interesting when musicians who have never played together are able to engage in present moment situations, and musically blow minds and melt faces.
All of these skills are ultimately strengthened by a good memory. With all this exercise, it’s no wonder that musicians display such phenomenal memory functions, as they perform simple and complex tasks in their every practice and performance. One must create, store, and retrieve memories each and every time they pick up their musical instrument. We see this every time they get on stage and play original songs and covers. Muscle memory kicks in as they recover memories from their stored bank catalogue, which works like “a good Internet search engine” and their impressive talents take over.
Find out more about why playing a musical instrument is different than any other art form or activity in this short animation from TED-Ed, written by Anita Collins:
[Source: TedEd: “How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain”]