CMS 2019

CMS 2019
Louisville, KY
24-26 October 2019

How Can I Teach What I Don’t Know. . .
about Music and the Brain?

Lois Svard, DMA
Bucknell University

Music has traditionally been studied as a cultural product, and that is still the way most music schools and departments approach it.  We learn about music in the context of a particular culture within a particular time period, whether the music of Mozart or Gershwin.  But neuroscientists study music and the process of making music as a window towards learning more about human brain function in general.  Robert Zatorre, cognitive neuroscientist and professor of neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute has written:  “From a psychologist’s point of view, listening to and producing music involves a tantalizing mix of practically even human cognitive function.”

Neuroscience and music is a relatively new field.  Most of what has been discovered about music and the brain has been in the past thirty years.  And most of what has been written about it has been by scientists.  There is no body of literature, whether journals or books, about music neuropedagogy that incorporates what has been learned about neuroscience and music into practical applications for students and teachers.

Over the past thirty years, the brain basis of almost every aspect of music has been studied, from the basic elements of pitch, rhythm, and melody, to more complex issues ranging from the mechanics of finger movement, to emotion, sight reading, performance anxiety, neuroplasticity in musicians, improvisation, learning and memory, the cognitive benefits of studying music, and more.

The field of neuroscience and music is a fast-growing field, and new discoveries are made daily.  But there is already a wealth of information that we should be making use of in our study, teaching and performance.  As I mentioned, several scientists have written about the brain and music, but as one neuroscientist told me, “a musician needs to write the book that addresses issues of music study and performance.”  And I am doing that.  But my book probably won’t be finished for a year or two, so in the meantime, I am going to direct you to other sources of information, primarily on this blog.  Feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have.

And if you want to receive notification of my latest blog posts about music and the brain, please subscribe at the right.

CMS Webinar on music and the brain

If you attended the Musicians’ Wellness session at CMS 2019, you will have learned about our series of webinars.  They are, frankly, the best source of information for learning what you need to know about musicians’ health issues.  I did one entitled “A Musician’s Guide to the Brain” : What We Need to Know and Why.”  I would suggest starting with that before going on to the sources below.  

Learning and memory

Click on Learning and Memory under Categories in the right-hand column of this page.  There are several blog posts that address the kinds of memory in music, how learning and memory happens in the brain, and the best practice strategies to produce reliable memory, thereby reducing performance anxiety.

Mirror neurons

Click on mirror neurons under Categories in the right-hand column of this page.  There are several blog posts that explain mirror neurons and how they affect both learning and performance.  

There are also posts under performance, practice, infants and music, and the benefits of studying music that all contain important information about what we need to know about the brain and music. 


Eckart Altenmüller, Mario Wiesendanger, Jürg Kesselring, Eds.  2006.  Music, Motor Control and The Brain.   There are four chapters on focal dystonia including one written by Altenmüller about Schumann’s focal dystonia.

Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel.  2014.  Make it Stick: the science of successful learning

Benedict Carey.  2014.  How We Learn:  the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens
Neither the Peter Brown nor Benedict Carey books are about music, but musicians can make use of the information.  Both look at recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines to show how much we think we know about learning is wrong.  Both give techniques for more productive learning and memory.

Roger Chaffin, Gabriela Imreh, and Mary Crawford.  2012.  Practicing Perfection:  Memory and Piano Performance.    Part of a research series intended for both psychologists and musicians, this book details how an experienced pianist organizes practice, identifies stages in learning, characteristics of expert practice, and practice strategies.

Daniel Coyle.  2009.  The Talent Code:  greatness isn’t born. it’s grown. here’s how
This book is about extraordinary levels of talent, and how they occur.  Coyle is really talking about the myelination of axons in the brain, although he rarely mentions the term.

George Kochevitsky.  1967.  The Art of Piano Playing:  a scientific approach.  Kochevitsky was the first to suggest that we practice with our brains, not our muscles.  Some of the science is outdated, but the idea that we practice with our brains is more relevant than ever.

Daniel Levitin.  2006.  This is Your Brain on Music:  the science of a human obsession. The best-selling book about how we experience music and why it plays such a unique role in our lives.  Written by a scientist, it contains a lot of fascinating information but does not address how musicians can use that information.

Richard Parncutt and Gary McPherson, Eds. 2002.  The Science & Psychology of Music Performance:  Creative strategies for teaching and learning.   Covers a variety of issues, from performance anxiety to brain mechanisms for music to issues having to do with various instruments.  Again, it tends to present the information, but not how musicians should use that information.

Neuroscience for Kids   Website from the University of Washington.  Aimed at kids, but great for everyone.

Brainvolts  is the name of the website for the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University, directed by Nina Kraus.  From the website:

Making music changes the brain, with tangible impact on listening, language, learning, social connection and cognition. Most research has focused on children taking private lessons. Through multiyear partnerships with inner-city schools and community programs, the Kraus Lab tells a new and promising story.

Everything on the Brainvolts site is fascinating, but as a start, click on the Music box on the home page.  That takes you to two presentations, one on Music and the Brain, and the other on Rhythm in the Brain.  Both presentations show that music has a significant impact on language and reading skills.


Please feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions.  I can be reached through the Contact link at the top of this page or at