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Music, Creativity, and Unlocking Our Full Potential

10/17/2013 10:21 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Last fall, I found myself sitting in a cold hotel conference room outside Chicago, drifting in and out of consciousness during a lecture on neurologic music therapy. This is one of those kind of presentations that anyone from outside the field would be hanging on every word, but those who are around it everyday unfortunately take for granted. It's fascinating subject matter, and our presenter, the very talented and bright Dr. Michael Thaut, is one of the leading research authorities on using music to change the brain.

About 30 minutes into the lecture, whatever trace of a languid attitude was present in my mind at the moment was quickly dashed by a bombshell of a thought dropped by Thaut:

"The arts are the cognitive base for thinking in abstraction."

Whoa. It was one of those holy-crap-let-me-write-that-down-so-I-can-tweet-it-later (who am I kidding, I was already on my iPad) moments. I kept saying it over and over again in my head.

Thaut went on to explain that some of the earliest human artifacts ever found are musical instruments. Modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are hardwired for music. Yet from a survival standpoint, music doesn't seem to play much of a role. So how and why did it evolve to be such an inseparable part of our being?

It really all comes back to Thaut's tweetable quote; it's all about thinking in abstraction. The crowning achievement in the evolution in mankind is our ability to think up creative solutions to the problems that plague us.

There's a mounting body of evidence that shows that many of the most successful and brilliant among us have studied music at some point in their life. I don't necessarily think that music has some magical ability to make us smarter. Rather, it just gives our brain an opportunity to practice abstract and creative thought. Creativity isn't easy, it takes practice.

Despite all this evidence, we're still slashing music and the arts from our schools. We replace these programs with an increased focus on science and math and our expectation is that we'll raise a generation of highly intelligent, highly skilled problem solvers.

Yet the most successful problem solvers are the ones who dream of solutions that are simply unfathomable to the general population. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs envisioned a world that was beyond the imaginations of the rest of us. They were able to do that because they were highly skilled at thinking outside of the box and being creative.

Music and the arts teach that highly valuable (and marketable) skill. If we truly want a generation of problem solvers (and the next generation certainly has their hands full of problems to solve), it's ludicrous to cut these programs.

Perhaps even more tragic is the state of access to the arts for students in special education programs. If music education is in danger for our typically developing students, it's in dire straits for our differently learning students.

Sadly, for many of these students and adults, our automatic tendency is to view them by their limitations. As a music therapist, I have the privilege to bring music and creative activities to individuals who don't typically get to experience them. By putting a person into a role where they're creating, you have to view them not by their limitations, but by their potential.

There's no clearer example of this than the case of Derek Paravicini, who shows us that true intelligence is not necessarily dressed as an eloquent speaker, a master networker, or a wordsmith. Sometimes a true creative thinker doesn't fit into societal norms. Sometimes their brains are wired a little differently. Sometimes they interpret the world differently than most individuals do. But when you give them a chance to flex their creative potential, you can be sure that you'll see beyond any perceived limitations.

Andrew Littlefield is a board certified music therapist, with additional training in neurologic music therapy and neonatal intensive care unit music therapy. He currently serves as Assistant Director at The George Center for Music Therapy Inc. and is a regular contributor to their blog.

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