Light Up People’s Brains with Music


When I was in the third grade, Lloyd Higgerson, the music teacher, came to our class and introduced the opportunity to be in the band. I wanted to play trumpet and my parents bought the instrument and encouraged me to practice. And practice. And practice some more. It was lots more pressure than I wanted so I quit band one day at school. When I arrived home, I found Mr. Higgerson waiting with my parents, in what could only be called an intervention. They all explained that I should not expect to quit learning new things when it became challenging.


The Hulihee Palace (historic site) in Kailua, Hawaii, hosts a monthly music celebration that is free to all who wish to attend.
The Hulihee Palace (historic site) in Kailua, Hawaii, hosts a monthly music celebration that is free to all who wish to attend.

Music became a part of my life from then on. I was in the marching band and a dance band in high school that performed at proms for other schools. In college I learned guitar and enjoyed participating in hootenannies, informal acoustic music gatherings on the Southern Illinois University campus. In my 30s I bought a mandolin and slowly learned to play well enough to play in a band. Playing music puts me “in the zone” in a major way.


If you’ve seen the video about recent research regarding music and the human brain, you know that researchers are finding out how music engages our senses in a holistic way. We use all of our brain when we play music and it helps us in other areas of cognition and emotional intelligence. Music is a catalyst for engagement. I am grateful that a dedicated music teacher bothered to ask my parents to keep me involved.


Think about the opportunity this knowledge creates for non-formal, free-choice learning programs. The National Center for Education Statistics released a report in 2012 on the arts in formal education. The good news was that music is still in 94% of grade schools showing no decline in the previous decade. Dance and theater did not fare as well.


The annual Mount Fuji Festival in Fujinomiya, Japan, is a celebration of culture through music and dance for people of all ages.
The annual Mount Fuji Festival in Fujinomiya, Japan, is a celebration of culture through music and dance for people of all ages.

Music as a part of programming at a zoo, nature center, museum, aquarium, community or historic site has great value. It lights up the brains of visitors just to hear music. If you involve them in making music the brain benefits are even greater. Music that is congruent with a place, culture and community can create lasting memories as it helps engage the brain in diverse ways.


Many free-choice learning sites host concerts, dances and varied arts performances. I haven’t seen many that teach music or bring musicians in on a regular basis. When I was a state park interpreter, I hosted monthly bluegrass and old-time music open-mike jams at the outdoor amphitheater. It was some of the most popular programming we offered and really appealed to local people who rarely took advantage of other park programming. It was a celebration of their local culture and a great social event over and over. As a nature center director, I started a music festival that became a great fundraiser and hosted many outdoor dances. We also had monthly music jams where players could learn from each other.



With our upcoming move to Hawaii, I am now learning to play ukulele and enjoying every minute of it. I hope to find opportunities to jam there, where the ukulele is part of the cultural soundscape at every community event (even though the instrument was originally introduced by the Portugese and is not considered a traditional Hawaiian instrument by many).


As a planner of interpretive experiences and trainer, I suggest that we think more about how to make music a part of the programming and ambiance of the places where we enjoy sharing our natural and cultural heritage. Neuroscience researchers suggest that the benefits of music to our well-being and in making memories are much more than we might have expected. Mr. Higgerson was obviously way ahead of them.


– Tim Merriman





Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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