Myths And Truths About Your Brain On Music

Pacific Standard had an interesting piece about the misconceptions music teachers and students studying to be music teachers have about the neurological benefits of music and music education.  The study was conducted in Germany so the author the article suggests that perhaps neurologists in the US do a better job of communicating the truth about music education better than their German counterparts, but I suspect that isn’t the case.

In the study, both music teachers and students were roughly equally adept (or bad) at separating myth from truth.

“Teachers and students correctly rejected 60 and 59 percent of the seven neuromyths,” the researchers report. Proven statements were correctly seen as true by 76 percent of music teachers and 78 percent of students.

That means there were a whole lot of wrong answers…

“The three most-trusted neuromyths included neuroscientific terminology, such as ‘brain hemisphere’ or ‘cognitive abilities,'” the researchers note. This suggests music teachers, like the rest of us, can be fooled into thinking an assertion is true if it is stated using neuro-jargon.

The researchers warn that this tendency may lead teachers to assign their pupils worthless or counterproductive homework. For example, 44 percent of teachers, and nearly 40.1 percent of aspiring instructors, believed this unproven statement: “The ability to improvise on the piano is controlled by the right hemisphere; special exercises can enhance the performance of the hemisphere.” In fact, such “exercises” would be a waste of time.

You can read the full study on the Frontiers in Psychology website.

The following chart from the study shows which of the myths and which of the proven statements the study participants correctly identified.  As you can see in the myths category, among some of the biggest misapprehensions were associated with music improving calculus ability; relationship between dominant hand and speech and music processing; and the impact of music education cognitive ability.

Among the substantiated theses, answers started to get a little iffy on the subject of the conditions which contributed to the positive influence of passive listening.

As the article suggests, the language used in some of these statements can be a little difficult to unravel and may influence participants’ perceptions. (At least in English, I am not sure if German terminology is clearer.) Questions 7M and 8S deal with similar concepts and probably appeared in sequence with each other.

Given that the survey was administered to music teachers and educators in training, I am sure they struggled with 1M that suggests musicians are smarter than everyone else. The fact that 75-80% answered it correctly can probably be attributed to a suspicion it was a trick question.

Being aware of what claims of benefits of arts and culture participation have been substantiated and which haven’t can be important for advocacy efforts. You don’t want to get caught citing debunked data.

Back in December, I called attention to Createquity project to survey all the available studies and evaluate the strength of the findings: Everything We Know About Whether and How the Arts Improve Lives. That page is a good place to start if you want to get a sense of whether the claims you are making are borne out by research and how strong the results are.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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