How can a scientist benefit from doing music on the side?

The worlds of science and music interconnect at many levels. It can be about the physical principles that make instruments able to produce a melody or a rhythm. Or it can be about complex neurophysiological theories on why we need music in the first place.

Here are some fun facts:

  • Evolutionary, areas allocated to processing auditory information in humans are bigger than in other primates. Although our middle ear is tuned to facilitate human voice recognition, it has far wider range than is required for speech. This gives us the opportunity to appreciate both melody and rhythm[1].
  • We are all familiar with the calming effect of lullabies, or energizing rhythms of workout music. Learning how to play an instrument and it’s impact on one’s brain has long been on a radar of physiologists, and has proven to have a positive impact on the brain, such as higher IQ, better working and verbal memory [2].

In the spirit of our monthly theme, I started to think about why many musicians – both professional and amateur – are among scientists? How exactly does it work? After taking a brief look through recent publications I can say that it’s complicated, and I am in no way competent to analyze all this information to put in a one neat article. But I found some curious titles, that I want to share with you. I found some ways a potential – or an active – researcher can benefit from music –whether they play an instrument or just enjoy their day to some groovy tunes. Here I present you three ways you can benefit from music as a researcher.

Memory and education

As we all know, a researcher’s path starts with education. Music can be more than a pleasant distraction from stress of upcoming exams – it can help you learn as well! According to this study [3], you are likely to learn the text better in a sung version, rather than in a spoken or written form.

Moreover, memorizing a sung text is a more comprehensive way of learning. It is no secret that a melody is a powerful mnemonic device, and one can use it to remember the sung information. Of course, this style of learning has it’s limitations – you are unlikely to find album version of course textbooks, and education is, of course, much more than just learning texts by heart.

However, there are hundreds of terms and details that need to be remembered in any subject, as well as complex concepts, that aren’t easy to understand and thus remember. For this occasions, learning a song about how molecules are formed, or the periodic table of elements, or even an entire list of bones in human body can be much faster, easier and much more useful than just cramming it in.

Processing speech

Playing an instrument can be so much more than a hobby or a pleasant pass time for scientists! Both music and language require us to perceive, process and produce complex sounds, as well as decipher the information encoded in them. Processing of both music and speech uses the same brain resources and employs common neural circuits [4]. So hours spent practicing an instrument or listening to music weren’t in vain.

In fact, musical training has been shown to improve speech processing, including syntactic processing and ability to perceive speech in a noisy background. So auditory learning, like lectures and seminars, becomes easier for a musically trained brain. Not only education here is the positive takeaway – think about traditional conferences! Listening to presentations for hours on end is bound to be as boring, but with an ear fine-tuned by musical training, one gets a better understanding of talks, and also acquires a better perception of speech in the variety of accents. Surely, there must be a lot of experience for this to work – the brain can’t get trained overnight, so it’s better to find another way to prepare for a conference than pick up a violin a week before.

Learning a new language

Nowadays it is hard to imagine our world, especially scientific, without a universal language of communication. It’s just so happened that English became the golden standard for a lot of areas, including science. So learning at least English is something on the list of everyone with an ambition for international communication. Often more languages need to be added to the list – researchers tend to move around the world, and if you end up living and working in a non-English speaking country, learning its language is a necessity.

Here are the good news: having a musical background gives you advantages in learning a language! First of all, skilled musicians are able to differentiate better between sounds – both hearing and producing a new sound is easier with previous musical training. Sounding like a local and understanding the natives is the dream come true for those passionate about their journey on a way to speak a foreign language. But that’s not it – statistical learning of a new language – the same way we learn to speak our native language – is also positively influenced by music [2], meaning you are generally better at recognizing language patterns. Moreover, the higher the skill, the better results – so if you have musical awards under your belt, you are likely to find it easier to learn a new language.

Last but not least, musical training, together with ability to speak multiple languages, keeps the brain in fitter shape, compared to non-musicians [5].

So let music bring more rhythm to your career, and pick up an instrument or a pair of headphones in your free time!

  1. Trimble, Michael, and Dale Hesdorffer “Music and the brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation”.
  2. Shook, Anthony, et al. “Musical experience influences statistical learning of a novel language”.
  3. Lehmann, Janina Annika Mara, and Tina Seufert. “Can Music Foster Learning–Effects of Different Text Modalities on Learning and Information Retrieval”.
  4. Intartaglia, Bastien, et al. “Music training enhances the automatic neural processing of foreign speech sounds”.
  5. Amer, Tarek, et al. “Do older professional musicians have cognitive advantages?”.
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