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Zorba Paster: Singing, musical cues can aid in learning, study finds

New research indicates that singing, whether with a group such as Spokane’s Pages of Harmony or as part of physical therapy, can help improve brain function. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
New research indicates that singing, whether with a group such as Spokane’s Pages of Harmony or as part of physical therapy, can help improve brain function. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Do you like to sing? I sing in my head all the time. When I was a young lad, before those male hormones made me crazy, I was a soprano – not a regular soprano, but a high soprano. My teachers loved that I hated it. I wanted to be a baritone. Uh, huh. Those of you who listen to my radio show and podcast know my voice is nowhere near the “Old Man River” range.

Back to singing. After I went through my pituitary madness, I stopped singing because the notes I could hit were not the notes I wanted. I sang in the shower and in the car, but never in public.

Now my 70-year-old voice box doesn’t come anywhere near my teen one, but I still hum and sing when I’m alone. And new research out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland shows that singing might help my brain function.

Back in the day – that is, certainly before the 1990s – scientists thought the brain stopped developing somewhere in your teens or 20s. Done. Finished. That was it. Develop no more. Old brains are fixed.

Boy, were they wrong.

The brain continues to develop throughout our lifetime. Researchers such as Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of UW-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, has shown through imaging such as functional MRI scans that we are always making new connections. The brain has neuroplasticity. It’s not fixed in stone.

In the Edinburgh study, researchers took 30 right-handed volunteers, dividing them into two groups. Each group had to learn new motor skills with their non-dominant hand – the righties became lefties. Now, stop for just a moment. If you have a pen (being a geek, I always do) write your name with your non-dominant hand. Looks like a third grader’s writing, doesn’t it? It did for them, too.

But this is where the study got interesting. Half of these folks learned the other-handed tasks while being silent, in a quiet room, while the others used musical cues. When the participants from both groups were put in MRI scanners, researchers found that the music group had made more connections in the white matter of the brain than the silent group. This part of the brain was the important area for learning the new motor skills. The music helped make better brain connections.

Just think about this for a moment. Say you’ve had a stroke and you can’t use your hand. We send you to physical therapy and occupational therapy, and we do it with verbal cues, telling you to do it this way or do it that way. We use hands-on learning and verbal skills. But perhaps we need to add music to this equation. This could be a boon to the rehab community.

Sometimes you might talk to yourself when you’re attempting to learn something – I do this all the time. For me, hearing instructions through my ears establishes form and structure in my brain, so I can do it again. In fact, many of us may often say words out loud rather than just think them to ourselves. Somehow, hearing the words helps us stay on task.

But the interesting part of this study is that this was done with music, a nonverbal cue that improved the process. Perhaps singing to yourself would help it sink in better when learning new things. It might serve the same purpose as mnemonics, for example, but instead of using these word-based learning devices, there may be an advantage in rhythm- and note-based education learning.

My spin: This very exciting research shows that music might be an aid to learning for those with brain dysfunction or perhaps people who have autism or even for everyone else as just another method of memorization. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and host of the public radio program “ZorbaPasteron Your Health,” which airs at noon Wednesdays on 91.1 FM, and noon Sundays on 91.9 FM. His column appears twice a month in The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at askzorba@ doctorzorba.com.


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