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Brain Rules

Joseph Allison and Erin Wehr • Commentary • May 19, 2011

Tony DeBlois represents a captivating example of the unique relationship between music and the human brain.

DeBlois was blind and weighed less than two pounds at birth, and was diagnosed with autism at age five. But at age two, his mother bought Tony a toy piano on which he immediately was able to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” This was the very first time he ever touched an instrument! He soon won a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, and graduated summa cum laude with a Certificate of Achievement for his work from the prestigious Boston school.

Now in his 30s, DeBlois plays 22 instruments and has been performing professionally since he was 9. His precocious ability has been the subject of several media features, including CBS’ “Sixty Minutes.”

This and other similar examples point to a unique relationship between music and the human brain – not only in how we make music, but how we respond to this most complex form of expression. Neuroscientists and music educators have long been interested in the musical connection to the human mind. Just Google “music and the brain,” and you get about 124,000,000 results in 0.07 seconds!

Recent publications associated with the latest research in the music/brain relationship include Oliver Sacks “Musicophilia” and Daniel Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain on Music.” Both works have reached bestseller status and are quoted and applied extensively in music education circles. A more recent book has rapidly been accepted and adopted in the neurology community, and has already inspired further “spin-off” publications.

“Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School” is the work of John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Medina is also director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.

In the introduction, Medina has a section entitled “no prescriptions.” In it, the author says that rather than being prescriptive, the ideas of his book are a “call for real-world research” into how biology affects behavior. Appropriate to that goal, Medina’s own writing style could be described as “real world” in that he takes great care to use plain English to illuminate the physical processes of the mind’s activities in a way that non-scientists can understand. In fact, the hardback edition comes with a DVD to serve as an introduction and to demystify the subject material by using video illustrations and other devices.

As the title would suggest, the focus of “Brain Rules” is squarely on the 12 Rules and their practical application. So, let’s take a look at Medina’s “stone tablet.”

  • Rule #1: EXERCISE – Exercise Boosts Brain Power.
  • Rule #2: SURVIVAL – The human brain evolved, too.
  • Rule #3: WIRING – Every brain is wired differently.
  • Rule #4: ATTENTION – We don’t pay attention to boring things.
  • Rule #5: SHORT-TERM MEMORY – Repeat to remember.
  • Rule #6: LONG-TERM MEMORY – Remember to repeat.
  • Rule #7: SLEEP – Sleep well, think well.
  • Rule #8: STRESS – Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
  • Rule #9: SENSORY INTEGRATION – Stimulate the senses.
  • Rule #10: VISION – Vision trumps all other senses.
  • Rule #11: GENDER – Male and female brains are different.
  • Rule #12: EXPLORATION – We are natural explorers.

Let’s now take a brief look at each one of these and see if we can establish connections to benefit our rehearsals.

Rule #1: Exercise

If you immediately thought of marching band (or strolling strings), you’re not alone! But, does the physical nature of performing in an ensemble (moving around or not) have this same desired effect? Should we incorporate physical drills into our regular rehearsal plan? Assign aerobic exercises as homework? Do breathing exercises count?

Rule #2: Survival

Obviously, symbolic reasoning, although unique to humans, is essential to both the process of making and understanding music. Since the need for students’ perceived safety & security is an aspect of this rule, what do we do to insure concurrent feelings of well-being and intense focus, particularly since those two states can seem to be opposites? How often (and how intensely) should we appeal to our students’ emotional mind? How do we get the music performed to do that for others?

Rule #3: Wiring

Knowing that no two brains store information in exactly the same way, how do we get each student to master the same skills in the same way as others? How do we get them to retain the knowledge and skills needed to be uniformly proficient? Do we need a special teaching activity for each individual student? (IEPs gone wild!)

Rule #4: Attention

… huh? Sorry, I dozed off there for a second… How do we decide which individual component skills to emphasize with a roomful of students practicing several multi-layered skills at any point in time? Knowing that emotional arousal helps the brain learn and retain, how can we capitalize on that? Just wait until we discuss Medina’s “Ten-Minute Rule”!

Rule #5: Short-term Memory

What number is this again? (… Sorry again.) Medina tells us that most indicators that predict the success of learning and retention occur in the first few seconds of the specific learning event. How can we possibly use this to advantage? Since relating new information to that already learned is a well-established method of securing memory, what techniques can we use to improve on simple repetition? Medina also says, “introductions are everything!” If that is true would “okay, let’s run through this and see what happens” really be the most efficient and effective way to approach a new piece of music?

Rule #6: Long-term Memory

Medina says that most memories disappear within minutes, but those that don’t actually strengthen with time. What do we do to account for that in a lesson plan? How do associated memories work? Long-term memories often take years to form – since we’re teaching life-long skills, is there a way to “set up” students for future success?

Rule #7: Sleep

Youngsters need more and better sleep to develop growing minds and bodies. A lack of adequate sleep (amount or quality) decreases attention, memory, mood, quantitative skills, reasoning, and even motor dexterity. Other than that, it’s not very important. Can we as educators have any influence on the amount and quality of our students’ sleeping patterns?

Rule #8: Stress

Stressful situations trigger the body’s release of adrenaline and cortisol to focus the brain (and body) in a maximum (fight-or-flight) way. This begs the question: wouldn’t a consistently stressful rehearsal environment facilitate the students to learn more effectively and retain more? Think again. Even if true, is this practical? How much stress is appropriate, and how do you measure it? A number of legendary conductors have applied this theory, knowingly or not. Regardless of possible learning gains, the feeling of helplessness (the feeling one has no control over a problematic situation – like a student in instrumental music rehearsal) is the worst kind of stress for the human brain and body. So if stress improves learning, how do we deal with that? Anarchy? No rules?

Rule #9: Sensory Integration

Medina suggests we learn best when several senses are all involved in the learning. Should we consider senses other than hearing and seeing in our instruction? If our senses evolved to work together, how does that affect learning and musical understanding? Use air freshener?

Rule #10: Vision

This probably comes as no surprise to anyone, and music educators have attempted to account for this fact for quite some time in many ways. The process of sight takes up fully one-half of our brain’s physical resources! But even though our sense of sight is dominant, it’s not always accurate. How does what we see affect what (and how) we hear?

Rule #11: Gender

Yes, Mars and Venus yet again, but in some ways a risky topic to tackle. Few would contest that the genders are different in physiology, but the practical implications of approaching females and males in contrasting ways would be risky in most any context, particularly public education. In light of this, is it practical to incorporate multiple techniques that tend to stimulate one particular gender in a way that equalizes their exposure to all students (i.e., is the same number for boys as for girls)? Would using a technique or activity geared more to one gender have the opposite effect on the other, engendering the “Robin Hood” effect? Same-gender classrooms? Our courtrooms are busy enough as it is.

Rule #12: Exploration

What if we were taught as babies to speak in the same way we were taught to play an instrument in an ensemble? (Would the method book and worksheets even fit in the crib?) For most of us, the process of learning to talk was an interactive one that included exploration and modeling. Medina’s text emphasizes that we learn from experience as powerful and natural explorers. Have you ever found yourself squashing a student’s natural curiosity? Not the best feeling, is it? We all know the “reasons”: music instruction in the schools is a group activity, and we must have discipline and control in order to even begin to accomplish anything en masse. “You can’t teach them anything until you get their attention,” the old saying goes. Certainly there’s truth in this, but it’s also evident that it’s easy to “do all the student’s thinking for them,” and systematically diminish their innate desire for discovery. The axiom “you learn better when you learn it yourself” may still be true, but the emphasis on teacher accountability and standardized testing has all but eliminated discovery from many classrooms, even “successful” ones.

No one is suggesting that we can regularly manufacture students with the amazing skills of a Tony DeBlois using the research-based insights offered by John Medina in his book, “Brain Rules.” But strategies based on the 12 Rules may have the potential to unlock more and greater achievements in music for a greater number of people – performers and listeners. Toward that end, in future articles we will focus on the individual Brain Rules in more depth. We will visit the human processes associated with each Rule, and propose applications to take advantage of these latest insights into the functions of the mind. In the meantime, please visit Medina’s Brain Rules website at There’s an introductory video, and the information is presented in ways consistent with the Brain Rules themselves. See you again soon, and be sure to get some sleep and exercise!

Joseph Allison is a professor of Music, the director of Bands, and coordinator of Conducting Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Prior to this position, Dr. Allison was the director of Bands and Orchestras at Sumter (S.C.) High School, where his program became the first internationally to be honored by the John Philip Sousa Foundation as laureates of both the Sudler Flag of Honor for concert excellence and the Sudler Shield for marching achievement. Allison maintains an active international schedule of clinics and adjudications in the concert, marching, and jazz activities. He can be reached at



Erin Wehr has taught music education for Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Iowa. She has also directed elementary and secondary instrumental music programs in Iowa and Illinois, taught general music, and holds Orff certification. Wehr has served as a clinician, adjudicator, and guest conductor for elementary and secondary music programs, drum and bugle corps, and adult and community music groups.

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