Monday, June 17, 2013


Rodin's Thinker, from Flickr

A lost skill?

I recently heard an (old) This American Life episode about what we learn from music lessons. While much of the lessons illustrated on the program were tongue-and-cheek, one thing that music lessons teach us is concentration, which, according to NPR's Science Friday, is something kids desperately need to learn. The point of Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, is that while everyone (men and women, at least for media tasks) thinks they are being more productive when they multitask, they are all fooling themselves. The antidote for unproductive multitasking is learning how to focus our attention on fewer things and so become more productive. I think music is perfect for this.

Why does music teach us concentration? Well, music is complicated enough, and the coordination required so great that one really needs to focus their whole attention. While it might be easy to listen to music while you check Facebook, it's very hard to practice music doing the same thing. Music rarely pauses, and while one might start and stop while practicing, the final goal is to limit interruptions, which is the opposite of multitasking. Also, in order to improve in music, one needs to practice. Practice is really learning how to repeat something until it's always correct, and that takes patience and persistence.

But there are other ways, right?

Couldn't we learn how to concentrate by another method? Yes, I think one could learn concentration with other arts (such as theater, sculpture, pottery), or sports, or maybe even video games. But music, in my mind, is superior because it combines 4 things: 

  1. music is mentally and physically compelling in the moment, 
  2. music engages a very large part of the brain, 
  3. music is a physical activity, and if done properly, can increase health and well-being, and 
  4. music is a skill that continues to benefit practicers years after.*
But, some might argue, that when one performs music, they focus on many things: watching the conductor, counting beats in their heads, moving their fingers, controlling complex breathing patterns, and sometimes marching. Isn't that multitasking? Well, Professor Nass counters this argument: "It's extremely healthy for your brain to do integrative things. It's extremely destructive for your brain to do non-integrative things."

Extremely healthy indeed. Now if we could just pay music teachers more for their needed and health-giving service. Maybe as much as athletic coaches? In my dream world, anyway.

Do you think that something else might teach concentration as well or better than music? Or do you think fears of loss of concentration skills are overblown?

Vocab: conductor, beat

*I will track down studies that have proven these points for next week. Or if any of you know where to find them, please comment!


  1. While I have yet to find a study supporting my claim of musician's increased concentration, here are some studies and books about the positive physical and neurological effects of music:

    -Besson, Chobert, and Marie, "Language and music in the musician brain." Language and Linguistic Compass 5 (September 2011): 617-634.
    -Terry, Karageorghis, Saha, D'Auria, "Effects of synchronous music on treadmill running among elite triathletes." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 15 (January 2012): 52-57.
    -The Neuroscience of Emotion in Music by Jaak Panksepp and Colwyn Trevarthen
    -Brain and Music by Stefan Koelsch
    -Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

  2. And another one:
    -Music, Health, and Wellbeing, edited by MacDonald, Kreutz, and Mitchell. 2012.