The Neuroscience of Learning to Read Music

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX

We don’t teach students. We teach brains.”

-Dr. Robert Duke, The University of Texas at Austin

Reading is one of the few skills that is required within every specialty and therefore must be reinforced by teachers of all subjects and at all levels. Music educators have an additional responsibility to instruct students how to decode musical notation, in addition to encouraging the development of basic language reading abilities. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that music educators understand the neurological processes involved in teaching a developing brain to read. Previously, it was believed that the ability to read was dependent upon the strength of specific regions of the brain, but new research points towards the level of connectivity within the brain’s many “networks” as being the determining factor of a student’s abilities instead. This is critical information for instructors of young children and adolescents who can make the educated decision to employ educational methods that are proven to encourage the creation of connections between the brain’s different regions.  

Making a Memory: Defining Synaptic Pruning and Myelination

The ability to make lasting memories in the human brain is primarily dependent on two processes; synaptic pruning and myelination. Synaptic pruning is defined as the process by which the brain determines which synapses to strengthen and which to disregard (Cafasso, 2018). It is a lifelong process that allows the brain to periodically “clean house” and make room for additional or more complicated information as an individual matures from infancy to adulthood. Myelination is the process by which the brain protects critical connections (bundles of axons) with layers of myelin; commonly referred to as white matter (Snaidero, 2014). According to studies by Fields (2008), Makinodan (2012), Liu (2012), and Mangin (2012), the peak of this process occurs in early childhood and continues into adulthood as the brain adapts to the individual’s needs and experiences (Snaidero, 2014). The majority of contemporary studies emphasize the importance of providing young students with consistently high quality educational experiences since it is the external stimuli and not necessarily any “predetermined genetic program”  that encourage the formation of these connections (Snaidero, 2014).

Breakthrough in Understanding the Neuroscience of Learning to Read

In contrast to previous beliefs, that the ability to read is isolated in specific regions of the brain, new research has shown that the level of connectivity between those regions has a significantly larger impact on a subject’s reading proficiency (Smith, 2018). In a 2018 study, led by Gregory J. Smith and Chris McNorgan, researchers explored the correlation between the level of connectivity between the different regions of the brain, or the “reading network,” and the changing reading abilities in participants over the course of two and a half years (Smith, 2018). Participants for the study included nineteen right hand dominant native English speakers (ten females and nine males) ages 8-14 from the Chicago Metropolitan area who participated in two scanning sessions (Smith, 2018). Surprisingly, the results indicated a recurring relationship between increased reading abilities and changes in functional connectivity and transitivity (Smith, 2018). These results clearly indicate that the brain’s ability to efficiently connect various regions (the strengthening of the “reading network,” if you will) has a larger impact on an individual’s literacy than the strength of the regions themselves; the presence of more nerve clusters between the brain’s independent regions allows for quicker and more efficient processing of information.

This new research is supported by a 1996 study completed by neuroscientist Carla Shatz, PhD of the Stanford School of Medicine (Shatz, 1996). In 1992, Shatz and her team noticed “that a molecule ordinarily associated with the immune system played a role in shaping, young, developing brains (Collins, 2017).” This led to the groundbreaking conclusion that “although the rough structure of [each] system is programmed in our genes, the precise connections among neurons […] are not explicitly predetermined (Collins, 2017).” That structure, Shatz theorized, originates instead from a spike or lull in neural activity; “there must be special synaptic mechanisms at the retinogeniculate synapse to strengthen connections when action potentials from different presynaptic inputs arrive within near synchrony of each other and also to weaken them if cells fire asynchronously (Shatz, 1996, pp.606). Takeuchi’s study in 2014 further explored the relationship between presynaptic neurons and postsynaptic neurons (Takeuchi, 2014). Takeuchi concluded that the more frequently a pair of neurons interact, the more efficient the interaction becomes over time; a concept commonly referred to as synaptic plasticity (Takeuchi, 2014).

Applying this Information to Educational Practices

Armed with the new information that it is these processes, and not the strength of the brain’s regions themselves, that determine a student’s potential for long-term reading success, educators can make an effort to employ science-based methods proven to encourage the creation (or strengthening) of connections within the brain. Strategies that promote a combination of intrapersonal and interpersonal exercises, according to contemporary research, will likely have the greatest impact on a developing brain’s level of connectivity. The impact of socialization on a developing brain was observed in a 2012 study in which researchers placed mice of varying developmental stages in varying degrees of isolation for up to two weeks and took note of the changes (or lack of changes) to the structure and thickness of the individual’s myelin makeup (Makinodan, 2012). Surprisingly, the study revealed a direct relationship between isolation in early life and a severely limited ability to make new connections (by alterations of oligodendrocytes and myelin development) in adulthood (Makinodan, 2012). In 2017, Melinda Owens of San Francisco State University describes an example strategy, think-pair-share, that involves both introspective and social elements (Owens, 2017). This three-phase system of introducing information into a classroom setting requires students to first consider the solution to a problem individually (think) before discussing it with a partner (pair), and eventually presenting their conclusion to the class (share) (Owens, 2017). Owens is confident that this method, because of the “intricacies of the tasks the students’ brains must” engage in (for example, attempting to connect external life experiences to classroom material) to complete these seemingly simple processes, will encourage the creation of more connections (or the strengthening of existing ones) within the brain’s structure and therefore will have a lasting impact on a student’s long-term memory (Owens, 2017).

The ability to read is a necessary life skill required by people of all trades which means that a student’s degree of success in this pursuit will directly affect their lifelong social and professional development. Recent studies have revealed that the determining factor of a student’s long-term reading capabilities is the level of connectivity within the “reading network” of the brain. An individual’s degree of connectivity is determined by processes like synaptic pruning and myelination that are responsible for creating and strengthening pathways between the brain’s various regions. For this reason, it is necessary to implement teaching strategies like think-pair-share that are proven to encourage the creation (and reinforcement) of new connections within the brain and therefore positively impact students’ long-term memory and neurological development.



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