Music, Movement and the Developing Brain


Far from being complete at birth, a child’s brain gradually develops through very specific sequential stages. These stages are initiated naturally, in accordance with the neuro-developmental movement patterns exercised in the womb and first year of life. In addition, these natural reflexes are typically accompanied by the “vocal music” of a baby’s early vocal utterances. This early form of vocal music supports the baby’s reflexes and their innate rhythmic patterning in a type of balletic “pas de deux” for foundational brain development. Likewise, our own replication of these reflexes (as in the BrainDance™) accompanied by our own vocal sounds and/or instrumental music throughout life, can continue to support the health of our brain at any age. This healthful combination of natural movement and sound/music can support our brain for a lifetime of health and longevity.

The Brain’s Development Grows Through Experience

Experience inspires billions of brain cells to grow strong connections between one another in what is called “synaptic formation”. With each new and repeated experience, pathways form across neural networks determining the very shape and strength of our brain. Because our neural development, beginning in the womb, is rooted in movement and sound (within a very resonant environment), later experiences with these components have a far greater impact on the health and functionality of our brain. In addition, this development occurs in the context of LIVE PERSONAL relationship! For this reason, our foundational language of brain development is physical movement coordinated to sound/music in a social context. More specifically, it is the musical components of rhythm, pitch intervals and patterns that have the most profound affect on the brain and learning. Therefore, learning that is richly integrated with movement and music in a social setting is by far the most powerful and natural way in which to learn and thrive. Dancing, drumming, time spent in nature, listening to live (unamplified) music, singing, chanting and playing an instrument are amongst the most healthy “brain foods”. Such brain food provides a firm foundation for academic learning, healthy relationships and personal well-being throughout all of life.

A Healthy “Thinking” Brain Is Supported by a Strong Lower Brain

Our thinking brain (the cortex) functions healthfully when supported by automatic movements established by the lower brain. To understand how this refined automatic movement develops, we need to look to our “little brain”, the cerebellum. The organization of movement is one of the key functions of the cerebellum. Together with another sub-cortical area, the basal ganglia, movements are refined and automated. In habituated movement, the cerebellum’s role is “excitatory” while the basal ganglia’s is “inhibitory”. Thus, we need a balance of both for this type of automatic movement. This balance “frees” the cortex, allowing it to focus on higher-level thinking. When these lower areas are not functioning adequately (in this context due to insufficient experience) then movement that should be automatic, but are not, distract the thinking brain! There are a plethora of automatic functions dependent on lower brain efficiency that parents and teachers assume are in place, but in fact may be undeveloped in a child. Refined motor functions required for successful reading, writing, sitting upright in a chair, and articulating words, are just a few examples of habitual/refined movements that are dependent on lower brain function. Another lower brain structure, the pons (located in the brain stem/medulla oblongata) connects the cerebellum to the cortex and serves as the “switch board” between spinal chord and cortex. The pons carries messages from our nervous system to our cortex, telling the cortex what to pay attention to. The pons is also central to the functioning of our vital organs and flight/fight response. The pons, medulla and cerebellum all work together to plan, sequence and refine all of our movements. These refined movements can develop naturally through a regular diet of reflexive movement supported by music that has a strong rhythmic component. Climbing, jumping, rough and tumble “horse play” are also critical for proper development. For this reason, stationary activities (computer, television, gaming) that limit or replace active movement will delay and hinder a child’s healthy brain development. This plays a serious toll on a child’s academic, social and emotional health as they enter the classroom.

Music and the Brain

Music provides abundant “brain food” for all of us, especially the particularly receptive brains and nervous systems of young children. Music incorporates both organizational and emotional components making it a profoundly whole brain experience. The organizational aspect of music, from nursery rhymes to symphonies, develops the sequential parts of brain processing as well as the parts of the brain responsible for refined, repetitive movements (such as writing). A strong pulse, predictable repetitive rhythms also prime the brain for all areas of language development, memorization, organizational skills and even self-regulation/stress. The emotional aspect of music impacts our intrinsic motivation, creativity, conceptual thinking and stress response. Retention, attention and focus also improve when music is integrated into learning. Instrumental music, particularly string music (i.e. acoustic guitar, violin, viola, cello, bass) can be especially conducive to brain health due to the quality of the tonal colors and vibrations these stringed instruments produce. Regular exposure (even just 15 minutes a day!) to quality musical experience has the power to substantially enhance the brain’s capabilities and learning power.

Music, Movement and Motivation

When we move to music, our brain releases “feel good” chemicals throughout our brain and body. This positively increases our joy, reduces our stress and stimulates our “limbic” system (also referred to as the “emotional” brain). Centrally positioned in the brain, the limbic system borders and impacts EVERY OTHER part of the brain. The limbic system is also involved in learning, memory, biological function and social attachment. Moving to music we enjoy sets our limbic system into a relaxed emotional state – the ideal receptive state for learning and memory. A daily diet of brain-compatible movement and music integrated in/outside the classroom and home creates an environment in which all children can be self-motivated, enthusiastic learners!

In Conclusion

From infancy through early adulthood, the brain is growing at a phenomenal rate. The quality of a brain’s development is in direct correlation to the quality of its experiences. Experience determines what neural pathways will grow and strengthen. If there is a lack of experience in a given area, synaptic connections are “pruned away”. Music and movement integrated into an exploratory environment that is learner-centered, grows the brain most successfully. Such experiences will inherently contain a certain level of repetition and novelty particularly when developing new skill sets. In both cases, the learning is multi-dimensional, social and learner-driven! Music and movement integration inspires learners of all ages to delve deeper and sustain the experience for a much longer period of time. Such depth and duration supports not only healthy development but a brilliant brain.

Maria Simeone © 2017. For reprint permission please contact Maria Simeone at info@musicmovesthebrain.com