Learning Disabilities: the Magic of Music

I can’t imagine life without music. Music is magical; it has the power to soothe a broken heart or make us dance like no one is watching. The right song can lift us out of a funk or take us back in time. But it is so much more; it could be the key to unlocking other mysteries in the brain.

ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Dyslexia (in all its forms) and Sensory Integration Dysfunction all have one thing in common—they happen due to a disruption in the brain. Specifically, a hemispheric imbalance. The idea is that when the right or left side is weaker, strengthening therapies greatly improve learning disabilities. Multi-modal, non-invasive therapies, like music, help re-wire the brain. And music is fun! Seriously though, this is some really exciting stuff. Whether people play an instrument or participate in music, the results are amazing.

Let’s begin with a study by James Hudziak, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont and Director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families. He studied the brain development of 232 children between the ages of 6 and 18 who played a musical instrument. “What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument, the more it accelerated cortical organization in attention skills, anxiety management and emotional control.” Anxiety, depression, attention problems and aggression also correspond with changes to cortical thickness. Playing music altered the behavior-regulating areas of the brain, or the “executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future,” wrote the studies’ authors.

So what IS cortical thickness? This is the connective tissue in the brain through which the right and left brain communicate. A thicker membrane has more neural highways, allowing for greater hemispheric transference, or better communication. Because learning disabilities are thought to be compounded by hemispheric imbalance, under-functioning neurologic pathways impede each half from communicating properly with the other, causing the brain to become desynchronized.

The brain processes all sensory input: sight, smell, touch, taste, balance, coordination, fine and gross motor skills, speech, facial recognition and emotional responses. We all receive information in the same way, but for many of our children with learning disabilities, the messages are miscommunicated. Music helps by converting sounds to actions; by connecting the auditory and motor sections of the brain, which in turn increases the understanding of verbal commands.

For example, a pianist navigates 88 keys using two hands simultaneously, playing up to 10 notes at a time. Therefore, pianists have to develop a totally unique brain capacity. When we discovered our daughter had Dyslexia, our pediatrician recommended the piano. I can testify this worked wonders for her! True of any instrument, this actually strengthens the weaker hemisphere. When both sides are equally strong, speech, spatial awareness, coordination and attention span can greatly improve. Academically, it helps children develop spatiotemporal faculties, improves their ability to solve complex math, comprehend time and space, helps reading comprehension and verbal abilities. This is especially true for children with ADHD (who can comprehend more in less time) and Dyslexia (because they can digest information as phrases rather than in pieces).

Music promotes wellness by managing stress, enhancing memory and improving communication. A 2004 study from the Journal of Music Therapy found that “music in interventions used with children and teens with ASD can improve social behaviors, increase focus and attention, increase communication attempts, and improve body awareness and coordination.” It also reduces anxiety, often present in ASD and Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Classical or rhythmic music has a predicable beat. When played regularly as a routine or ritual, it is a very effective transition tool.

So, what if your child doesn’t play an instrument? Sing like no one is listening! Singing in groups is especially therapeutic, creating social and emotional connections that have a physical manifestation. Musicologist Bjorn Vickhoff, of the Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden, monitored choral singers’ heart rates. He discovered in no time that their heart rates were synchronized. “The members of the choir are synchronizing externally with the melody and the rhythm, and now we see it has an internal counterpart,” Vickhoff says. “It’s a beautiful way to feel. You are not alone, but with others who feel the same way,” according to Vickhoff. Children with learning disabilities often feel disconnected from peers or, as in many cases with ASD, have difficulty connecting,” Vickhoff notes. “Wasn’t that a good idea to get the class to think, ‘We are one, and we are going to work together today.’”

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