This is your brain on music

The Ultimate Brain Exercise

One Song at a Time

Getting your kid to not quit music

Michael Emenau
5 min readJul 5, 2020


Why is it that playing air guitar, or even pretending to play piano makes us feel so good? Well, evidence shows that playing a musical instrument is the ultimate brain exercise, even pretending to play shoots off fireworks.

Studies demonstrate that every known part of the brain is activated when we play an instrument. So those music lessons you want your kids to take are worth every minute. And if they don’t stick with them — just a few years of training in childhood has been found to improve certain brain functions, even when tested forty years later. Similar findings were replicated in adults who picked up an instrument later in life.

In brief, playing an instrument:

improves language development

improves test scores

increases brain connectivity

increases spatial intelligence

modest increase in IQ

A Full Brain Workout

The effect of music on the brain is so intriguing that it has sprouted a new branch of research, neuromusicology, which explores how the nervous system reacts to music. Musical training has been shown to increase grey matter in certain regions of the brain, reduce anxiety, strengthen executive function, and improve social emotional bonds. The National Association of Music Merchants Foundation found that learning to play an instrument can improve mathematical learning and according to research conducted by Harvard Medical school neurologist Marie Forgeard, making music training a part of your life increases IQ and overall academic performance.

In other words, playing a musical instrument is the brain’s equivalent of a full body workout. Brain scans conducted by the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute found that music training in childhood accelerates brain development, especially in the areas of language and reading development. Research out of the University of Miami found that playing music increases human growth hormone production in adults and that it engages nearly every area of the brain at once — especially the visual, auditory and motor cortices.

Ear Training, The First Step to Making Music Stick

“Music simulates the brain in very powerful ways due to our emotional connection with it”

says Neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminister. This is precisely why I argue that the most inspiring and efficient way to first introduce music is through ear training.

One of the greatest challenges with formal music training is that teachers tend to start with how to read music — a visual skill that involves the acquisition of a new language, with its unique concepts, symbols and even grammar. A musical disconnect is in turn often created because the student tends to focus on the challenges of learning the new language rather than developing their musical ears.

While both the traditional style of note reading and ear training are very valuable, the order in which a student is introduced to playing music has everything to do with its stickiness. With the ear training method, when a student chooses a song to learn to play by ear, an emotional motivation sets in. This, coupled with the satisfaction of having learned to play that song, leaves an imprint of confidence and a thirst for more.

The connections made through learning to play by ear also help to erase preconceived notions that a learner may have developed, namely that musical ability is a talent granted only to a few humans, as well as mend any disconnects developed during formal music training.

Once this connection is established, the student can explore music theory, reading music, and other aspects of a formal education — deepening our understanding of music.

Never to late too start

Benefits to playing by ear:

More inclined to stick with your instrument

When you decide to learn a song by ear you have set into place the method, mindset and motivation necessary to develop a healthy and fun relationship with music, as observed with 98% of my students. Ultimately, students feel more confident about themselves with the knowledge that they can indeed play music.

Learn with ease and quickly hear results

When learning to play by ear, the student has subconsciously trained themselves to anticipate song melodies and recognize various structures relating to rhythm, melody and harmony.

Easier to remember music

When you learn a song by ear, the information rests in your memory, ready to access (like when you sing a song on demand) at any time. While it may take a few attempts to play a song you learned a year ago, recall will occur. Whereas a song learned by reading, once forgotten, tends to stay forgotten.

Play more musically

The more you play your instrument the more you become aware of the nuances that make a piece of music flow. The key is listening. Although subtle changes in dynamics, tempo, and harmony are often indicated through sheet music, it is the performer using her ears to express how she wants the music to sound that breathes life into a piece of music.

Better prepared for formal training

Students who develop play by ear skills will enter formal training ahead of the curve. The students who have fostered a feel for music will have obtained the necessary tools to play anywhere, from your neighbour’s birthday party to Carnegie Hall.

Your inner musician is waiting to become your lifelong companion — a relationship that if nurtured will continually evolve. Music wants to express itself through us. It has the power to help us heal and grow like no other activity — a power to connect us like no other language, and one that has been a part of our shared experience for the past 50,000 years.

Ultimately, playing by ear helps the development of a symbiotic relationship between our ears, voice and a musical instrument, helping us tap into our innate connection to music.

So, pick up that instrument and make music your family’s life-long companion.

For more information on how to play music by ear visit THE MUSIC LESSON to follow along as Michael Emenau introduces his friend, a musical novice, to melody, harmony, rhythm, and music theory — all the while learning how to play music by ear.

Michael Emenau has also created a series of highly rated online courses that engage students step-by-step on how to play by ear, as well as, music theory and song-writing. Use code “FORTYOFF” for a 40% discount on any of these courses.



Michael Emenau

Michael Emenau (pka MNO) holds a BA in classical music from McGill, has recorded/produced 180+ albums and created the award-winning children’s app “EASY MUSIC”