Music and Neuroscience with Dr. Anita Collins

Posted by Kathryn Brunner on

Anita Collins is Assistant Professor of Music and Arts Education at the University of Canberra, Australia. Her PhD thesis is entitled "Bigger, better brains: neuroscience, music education and the pre-service early childhood and primary (elementary) generalist teacher."

[Kathryn Brunner's questions & comments are in Bold text]

Welcome, Dr. Collins! Thank you for being with us today at Musik at Home to answer some very important questions about music, children, and how parents can give their children the very best in music education from birth! 

You have invested your life and work into the fascinating fields of music and neuroscience. You have gone to great lengths to translate the science into terms parents can easily understand, especially with your TED-Ed film "How Playing an Instrument Affects the Brain" which has over 5.4 million views! 

Your Ted-X talk, What if Every Child Had Access to Music Education From Birth, has almost a million views!

Your work is an inspiration. It is such a pleasure to hear from you today. 

Anita Collins: Thank you. I'm happy to be here to answer your questions! 

I find that in general parents agree music is important for their children, but many may be new to learning about the science behind why music education is so important in the earliest stages of development. 

What do you find most fascinating about how music affects the brain of a young child?

Anita Collins: I find the fact that it impacts the brain in so many ways the most fascinating part. How can one activity change the brain in so many different ways, how can one activity help us learn language while at the same time make our brains work faster while simultaneously improving the way we control our emotions and still be able to train our brain to use less energy? And I could write 5 more sentences just like that. It is just astounding.

Wow! That is absolutely amazing. Music is capable of doing so much more for our children than we may realize. 

The world of music is so vast. Where should a new parent start when it comes to music education? And/or what should a new parent know? 

Anita Collins: I think a new parent of a lovely baby should know that music learning is not a mystery. It is actually inherent in many of the activities we engage in innately with our beautiful bundles. We sing to them, our voices are more animated, we rock them, we tap on their backs to calm them - these are all the very basic elements of music pitch and rhythm or melody and beat. These are our brains building blocks.

Then where to start with music learning -- get advice from music educators, look at everything around the house that makes noise as a musical instrument, allow your babies and children to play with sound and discover their sound worlds. Then start them learning an instrument early and choose the one which they seem to be naturally drawn to.

Here at Musik at Home, we encourage parents to sing to their little ones even if they think singing is not their strongest suit. Is it important for a child to hear his or her own parent's singing voice? 

Anita Collins: The reason is evolutionary. Babies don’t understand language when they are born but they use their musical processing network to understand when a parent is speaking to them. The more variety on that speech and the more joy it includes gives babies a huge lexicon or dictionary of sounds to then start experimenting with language themselves. Just think of it as a varied diet for the ear, just like we encourage a varied diet for a baby’s body to grow. A variety of sounds make a baby's brain grow, literally!

The sequential music classes I teach are for children in the following developmental stages: birth to 18 months, 18 month to 3 years old, 3-5 years old, and then 5-7 year olds in beginning piano.

Over the course of my teaching career, I have seen first hand the incredible benefits of each stage of learning in my students. Some of the benefits include listening comprehension, attention skills, language learning, balance, coordination, impulse control, memory, abstract thinking, and problem solving just to name a few. I am fascinated by the neuroscience behind why these benefits show up! 

Can you comment on what is actually happening inside a young child's brain when engaging in a musical experience?  

Anita Collins: Babies use sound to make the different parts of the brain “talk” or communicate with each other. The pathways in the brain are like dirt walking paths when a child is young and listening to sounds. Moving and making music helps those paths turn into highways. This continues as children grow because everything we learn travels on those highways and the smoother the ride, the smoother and faster the learning.

That is such an incredible image to describe how music actually shifts the brain into higher gears for learning.

I often talk about music as the on-ramp to academics, rather than academics being the on-ramp to music learning. For example, while a baby can't learn to add two plus two, a baby can learn rhythm patterns and repeat them back. 

Does sequential music education benefit babies and toddlers specifically?  

Anita Collins: It's similar to what I mentioned above. Music Education teaches language and co-ordination, and from that comes all other learning.

That is a game changer! It is so easy to think of music education only as something to get to when a child is older and ready to learn an instrument. What I hear you saying is that music education is actually formative and foundational to a child's overall ability to learn and process information. 


I am enthralled with your findings about how music boosts literacy skills, math skills, language learning, IQ scores and more.

What would you say is the best way to ensure a child has the opportunity to take advantage of these benefits?

Anita Collins: Play with music and be surrounded by it in the home and outside the home from the very beginning of life. Attend formal music education classes in early childhood and then begin playing an instrument that is age appropriate and one that the child seems to like as soon as you can.

There are many ways for children to experience music. What are your thoughts on the differences between participating in musical activities at home versus school? If a child is getting music class at school or anywhere outside the home, is it still important to experience music in the home?

Anita Collins: Children need music everywhere in their lives, so home and school are both vital touchpoints for experiencing the benefits of music learning.

What would you say to parents who feel music is so far out of their league that they feel it best to leave it up to others to fill that gap for their child?  

Anita Collins: I would say I understand but I would also say it is the gift that will keep on giving to your child and well worth the investment. Children who have music training in their younger years are more successful professionally, earn more money, have more stable mental health, have more stable and fulfilling relationships and have better brain health into later life. It is worth the investment now for what they will reap in the decades to come.

We hope parents will be encouraged and feel empowered to incorporate music into life at home with their little ones. That is our mission here at Musik at Home. 

It has been such an honor to hear from you today, Dr. Collins.

Thank you so very much for your time and your encouragement to parents who want to give their children all the benefits music has to offer.  


I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Anita Collins. I am in awe of her ability to articulate the complex inner workings of the brain in language we can understand! 

Here are my takeaways:

#1 In infants and young children, music automatically helps create new pathways in the brain for understanding sound and language. 

#2 The more a child is exposed to music education, the more those pathways in the brain become highways for learning. 

#3 Children benefit the most from music when it is woven into the fabric of life in the home and outside the home. 

#4 A parent's role in providing musical opportunities is vital to a child's holistic development.

#5  Children who have had the opportunity to receive the neurological benefits of musical training are more likely to be successful in all realms of life.  

Dr Anita Collins is an award winning Australian educator, academic and researcher in the area of music education, particularly in the impact of music education on cognitive development. Continue reading her full bio here. Also! Check out more of her research on "Bigger Better Brains."  Please take a moment to watch Dr. Collins' fascinating research in animated action below and let us know what you think about the film and the interview in the comments below!


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  • I have never heard it said like this before. Thank you for opening my mind to what I’ve been missing out on for my son’s development. I can’t wait to learn more about how to cultivate music in our lives. Thank you for what you’re doing here!

    Marcy on

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