Music and attention

Music develops our attention and concentration in many different ways.

Today I’d love to speak about the ability to pay attention to auditory stimuli that musicians’ brain develops and why this is so important.

Our daily life subjects our brains to a huge amount of sound stimuli simultaneously. Our brain performs very complex operations to discriminate the sounds it wants to pay attention to, using cognitive functions related to the temporal lobe and the frontal lobe.

The ability to discriminate sound stimuli allows us, for example, to be able to direct our attention towards the sound of our friend’s voice in a noisy room.

Musicians can discriminate between different auditory stimuli better than non-musicians.

The Kraus lab at Northwestern* performed an EEG study and found that musicians had better auditory attention scores than non-musician counterparts when listening to various sources of speech. The main difference was presented in the musicians’ prefrontal cortex. The latter is often associated with attention and control, as well as personality and values.

The most fascinating part of this study was that the magnitude of the effect correlated to how long the musicians had played music.

People with more years of musical training had a prefrontal cortex that “paid better attention” than people who had fewer years of musical training. It seemed that people who had spent more time training their brains via musical study had prefrontal cortexes that were better at locking their attention.

Playing music alters the prefrontal cortexes and therefore influences the capabilities to pay attention to other activities in life. Being able to attend to different auditory stimuli can be helpful for a multitude of people; students might better be able to focus in school, sports players might hear each other over the sounds of the stadium and ground crew at airports might hear orders more accurately over the sound of airplane engines.

So, it seems like the time to recognise the importance of music in our daily life has finally come.


*Strait DL, & Kraus N (2011). Can you hear me now? Musical training shapes functional brain networks for selective auditory attention and hearing speech in noise. Frontiers in psychology, 2 PMID: 21716636

Musicians’ understanding of non-verbal communication

“One of the most interesting characteristics of musicians is their need to precisely anticipate not only what is going to happen, but when.

As the reader anticipates the words whilst reading, so the musician anticipates another musician to play together.

Think for example of a string quartet. When the first violin “gives the signal” to begin, the delays of the rest of the group are all inferior to 10 milliseconds. Moreover, during the performance, their synchronisation improves.

This ability of anticipation and coordination is absolutely extraordinary, even more, if we consider that it’s not just about playing a note together, but also playing it appropriately, with the right expression which is also dependent on the changing context.”*

How does this happen?

Our auditory system is able to synchronise with the temporal structure of the music stimulus, due to its rhythm and regularity.

Not only this but also other areas of our brain synchronise with the music, especially our motor system.

A musician, to be able to play together, literally learn how to “read” other musicians during a performance, recognising their littlest movements, their way of breathing and feeling the sounds of music.

“It is important to remember that, despite the age, the practice of music seems to facilitate:

1. the creation of a coherent relationship between the external world and brain activity

2. the communication between the different brain regions.

The consequence of the first aspect is to allow a more precise interpretation of the outside world, in particular, the world of sound.

The consequence of the second aspect is more far-reaching, considering that cognition, in general, seems to depend on the good communication skills of different brain regions, like a good government requires parliamentarians to communicate well with each other.

Beyond our current knowledge, a corollary of these two aspects could be that the practice of music facilitates a common vision of the world around us, through a better synchronization of the brain activities of different individuals, and a better sharing of reality.”*

*D. Schön, “Il cervello musicale. Il mistero svelato di Orfeo”, Il Mulino 2018

Music and Memory

The connection between music and memory is really strong and develops in many different ways!

For example:

  • we can use music to learn a new language memorising the lyrics of a song in a different language;
  • we can play music to recall memories from the past;
  • we can sing an old song to stimulate an injured brain… the possibilities are many!

When children are involved in music activities, they need to memorise the rules of the game, the melody, the lyrics and the movement, developing in that moment working memory.

What about when a child is learning how to play an instrument? Their memory is always involved!

 Let’s make an example:

– a child to be able to read the note DO on the music stave must recall the information stored in their memory regarding the other notes and correlate them with a first mental representation, both visual and auditory (semantic memory);

– coordinate the fingers using a whole set of visuospatial, auditory and motor programming strategies that involve short and long-term memory (and not only);

– implement a set of cognitive functions including working memory, to control and balance gesture-sound coordination.

Easy, right? 🙂

SEN family supported by Arsenal Foundation

If you live around the Arsenal Stadium in and your child has specials needs you don’t want to miss this opportunity! Music therapy should soon as well!

Few spaces left on the next PEPTalk group sessions running in January-February. They are lead by a therapist called Louisa who is an advanced sensory integration therapist and Occupational Therapist.

The sessions will focus on sensory integration and be held in the specialist sensory room at The Arsenal Stadium in Islington. The sessions will provide you with practical advice and activities to support the development of your child’s sensory integration which can impact upon the development of a range of different skills including attention, communication, social interactions and daily living skills.

The 5 session block costs £50. For children new to the group sessions, an initial online consultation fee will apply. There will be no fee for children who have already engaged in PEPTalk sessions.

For children living in Islington, Camden and Hackney the initial consultation is paid for by the Arsenal Foundation.

Please contact highburyparkmusic@gmail.com if you are interested in finding out the dates and times of the sessions.

Music and Executive Function

Our paper regarding the impact of music on the development of the executive functions in children 3-4 yo is getting ready! This is the next step after the research we run last year with Creative Futures and the University College London. Describing the activities and highlighting the process that brought us to significant changes is such a long process… but we love it! #musiceducationnerd 😂
We will then publish the activities and the musical examples of our research! Stay in touch!