Executive Function & Music Lessons

The term, executive function, describes processes that are vital to us in all aspects of life. Executive function is a term used  to describe the processes of thinking, acting, and solving problems.  Executive function is needed for learning new information and remembering and retrieving old information.  Our executive functions allow us to solve new problems of everyday life.  When executive function skills are deficient, it is noticeable.  An example of this deficiency is when some students are working in school or studying they usually have a plan A, but when that doesn’t work out, they are unable to come up with plan B.  These are the students who do the same thing over and over again even if it doesn’t bring academic success.

How else do executive function problems look?

  • my child struggles with planning and carrying out a project at school.
  • my child doesn’t have a good idea how long something will take to complete.
  • my child doesn’t seem to tell a story in the right sequence.
  • my child has a lot of trouble “getting started.”
  • my child struggles with ignoring other children or noises.
  • my child has problems with short term or working memory- for example: remembering the process for doing a math problem or writing a story while remembering spelling, punctuation, and the “word” he or she wants to use.

Sometimes children are described as having executive function issues when parents and teachers think of the child as having ADHD.  Parents can take steps to support their child in this area.

The interesting news is the research that indicates that practicing a musical instrument has a positive impact on executive function in children with lasting effects on the cognitive abilities of the aging brain. Practice changes the anatomy of the frontal cortex of the brain.   Results from research by Jentszch, Mkrtchian, and Kansal “suggest that higher levels of musical training might result in more efficient information processing in general (indicated by faster overall speed across tasks without accuracy tradeoff), and confirms earlier reports indicating a positive link between mental speed and musical ability.”  This study indicates that a person who has practiced a musical instrument over time is able to monitor his or her performance while playing, and not become overly bothered by errors, and thereby adjust to the errors.  You can see how possessing the skill to notice errors and adjust to them would help students in school and adults in life.

The executive function skills that seem to be improved by studying and practicing a musical instrument would be so valuable to a youngster who doesn’t intuitively monitor his or her performance in life, doesn’t control reaction to events, and may even overreact.  Not only would learning to play the violin be fun for a child, but it might just help the child’s executive function skills!

Hard Evidence for Music Study Effect on Language and Reading

How, not just where, the brain reacts to sound

Researchers at Northwestern studied the brainwaves in both musicians and non musicians. This differs from MRI readings because brainwaves are how the brain reacts not where. We can see how accurately and thoroughly the brain reacts, transcripts, or processes sound. I have always believed that music should be studied because it’s good and beautiful, but even I am amazed by these studies.

Click on the image to watch the slide show from Brainvolts

at Northwestern University.


NW study


Sound as the basis for language and reading

These results indicate huge implications for correctly deciphering sound which is the basis for building language skills and then reading. If I have a poor processing of sound, it will take me longer to repeat that sound back, or in the case of reading, if I don’t have a rich enough transcription of the sound, I will have trouble “hearing” in my head the sound of the word I’m reading.

Further, the researchers are suggesting that musicians are better able to hear emotional intonations and inflections in speech, and thus more correctly interpret the speakers intentions. We might conclude that children or adults with Autism may do well to study music which can train the brain to more accurately interpret sounds.




Nobel Prize Winner Credits Music Lessons

“From Bassoonist to Nobel Laureate: An Interview with Thomas Südhof”

Article first appeared in Double Reed, by Ryan D. Romine, Winchester, Virginia.

In October of 2013, neuroscientist Thomas Südhof was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on explaining the mechanisms of the presynaptic neuron. This research, exploring what happens when the presynaptic mechanism works correctly as well as when it malfunctions, gives us a much deeper view into how the healthy brain relays information and how conditions such as autism and Alzheimer’s disrupt that relay process.

Shortly after his prize was announced, Slipped Disc blogger Norman Lebrecht posted an excerpt of a 2010 interview (which first appeared in The Lancet) in which Dr. Südhof credits his bassoon teacher, Herbert Tauscher, with teaching him “that the only way to do something right is to practice and listen and practice and listen, hours, and hours, and hours.” Within days, Südhof became a hero of music performers and educators (and especially bassoonists) worldwide, his picture appearing in countless Facebook feeds next to Lebrecht’s splashy headline, “Nobel medicine winner says: I owe it all to my bassoon teacher.” Curious about Dr. Südhof and his musical studies, I recently sent an e-mail to his Stanford University address proposing an interview. To my delight—and hopefully yours as well—he very graciously agreed to share his thoughts on a variety of topics.

Continue reading here…