Timeline: Neuroplasticity And Music

May 13, 2019

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

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Repetition, correct repetition is the key to improving at any skill. Whether you’re preparing for a test, a race, a game, a performance; it’s all about practice and how you practice. There are many theories about how much practice it takes to get proficient and eventually master a skill. You’ve probably heard about the 10 year or 10,000 hour rule, thanks to Malcolm Galdwell, or that Charlie Parker practiced 12 hours a day or maybe you’ve admired the sleeping, eating and work-out routines that Olympic athletes use to become the best at their sport or event. The idea is to do the same thing over and over again, correctly, till the skill becomes natural. We will often use the words “muscle memory.”

Well, muscles don’t have memory. They get stronger, leaner and more efficient, but the actual work of practice is taking place, not in the muscle, but in the brain. Repetition of thought and action sets up pathways of connection within our neurons. The more these connections are used, the stronger they become. The Hebbian theory of neurology puts it quite simply, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Our ability to change our brains with training, practice and repetition is called neuroplasticity. We used to think that children and young people were the ones with malleable minds; that this ability waned with age. However, modern research is telling a different story. We never stop learning.

Music therapist and neuroscientist Dr. Elizabeth Stegemöller of Iowa State University tells a story about a patient of hers with Parkinson’s disease. He was in a busy restaurant when he suddenly had the need to go to the restroom, but he couldn’t get there. He was frozen in place. Freezing of gait is common in those with advanced Parkinson’s. The reflexes that control automatic movements can shut down without cause and stress only makes matters worse. That’s what was happening to this patient, he couldn’t move, people were staring and he had to get to the restroom now. Then he remembered a song, an exercise that his therapist taught him. He began to hum “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” and slowly he shuffled his feet to the rhythm of the music and made it.

Dr. Stegemöller writes that music therapy uses the neuroplasticity of the human brain to link musical ideas with motor skills. The therapist starts with music that the patient already enjoys to begin a process of connecting that enjoyment to specific activities. It’s thought that as the brain releases a dopamine response to the musical stimuli, therefore the connections targeted by the therapy become stronger. A melody can trigger motion, a rhythm can aid in respiration and a song can ease fatigue, pain, trauma and anxiety. This is a very practical use of musical entrainment and it’s only possible with repetition.

We can practice skills like playing an instrument, a game or an exercise. We can also practice wellness and peace of mind in the same way. We can find new pathways of thought and systems of behavior by training our minds. Our brains, our thoughts are not fixed, regardless of age. We never stop learn. We can still change.

How we get there? Practice, practice, practice …and music can help!

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.