Author Adriana Barton Says We’re All Wired for Music


Guest Contributor: Daphne Berryhill, Oncology Pharmacist, Health Writer, Medical Reviewer, and more! Daphane interviews Adriana Barton about her book, We’re all Wired for Music.


Vancouver author of Wired for Music says everyone is musical. She explains why we need more safe outlets to express, develop, and share our innate musicality.

Author Adriana Barton Says We’re All Wired for Music
Author Adriana Barton Says We’re All Wired for Music

Wired For Music by Adriana Barton is our holiday book recommendation. Part musical memoir— Adriana played the cello for nearly two decades—and part fun deep-dive into the science, anthropology, and health benefits of music. If you’re a sciencey parent who also loves stories, Wired For Music checks all the boxes. It’s the perfect gift to give or book to curl up with, and the audiobook is a fantastic listening option.

We’re excited to share our conversation with author Adriana Barton. But first, here’s a little of her backstory.

Adriana grew up playing cello through perfectionistic and painstaking daily practice and performances that took her all the way to Carnegie Hall and earned her entry into the Cleveland Institute of Music alongside Juilliard grads. Then, at 22, after earning a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University in cello performance, Adriana set the cello down and walked away—bringing with her a kind of “musical PTSD” she carried for years.

Adriana quickly shifted her focus to journalism. Years later, she interviewed Yo-Yo Ma while he was performing in Vancouver, a rare moment of her “post-cello” life intersecting with her past musical one. (She first met Ma backstage at 16, when she was invited to play his Stradivarius cello.)

Adriana earned a graduate degree in journalism from Concordia University. She spent 14 years reporting, writing, and copy-editing for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, primarily covering health and science beats. Her bylines can also be found in Utne, Azure, The Boston Globe, among others. Adriana’s work has taken her to Syria, Jordan, India, Zimbabwe, and Brazil. She lives in Vancouver with her husband and son.

Over Zoom last month, we talked with Adriana about how musical ability develops in children, why everyone can sing, and why parents should make music too.  

Wired for Music garnered great blurbs before hitting shelves a year ago. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps Score, said Adriana’s book is “a riveting account of how melodies and rhythms connect us, and help us deal with alienation and anxiety.”

Thank you Adriana. we’re excited to share your voice and book with our Musical Pathways family. Wired for Music really resonated and stayed with me because it opened my eyes to how fundamental music is to the human experience. Can you share how music can benefit parents who are caring for infants?

There are actual documented benefits. One group that’s done incredible work is the Lullaby Project, run by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. They’ve shown that making music for babies benefits parents as much as it does children. Parental anxiety and postnatal stress—and stress in general—can cause some parents to struggle to feel that they’re bonded with their infant.

Music is like a mood elevator. It reduces the stress hormone cortisol. And it helps parents bond with their children through music. And I think the other thing that making music with small children does is it gives you an outlet, a safe outlet to restore your own musicality. 

You point out that listening to recorded music alone is a relatively new phenomenon. Is sharing music at the community level still relevant in modern societies?

We know the oral traditions that we’ve lost can be regained when we read aloud together. It’s just like the gathering around the fire and storytelling, something humans have been doing for millennia. The same thing goes with making music with your child and sharing it with others. 

And in a parent and baby class, the stakes are low. No one is going to look at you funny if you get the wrong note on the xylophone. There’s a lot of permission to do it off key or imperfectly. Making music with babies can be, for lack of a better word, a healing experience for a new parent, restoring some joy. Music with young children can be an entry point to explore music. 

You put the “Mozart-effect” myth to rest — classical music doesn’t magically make babies smarter. I was pregnant with my first in 1999, so I remember the hype. And not gonna lie, I did the whole headphones to my belly thing. Did you fall prey to similar myths when you became a mom? Or have that nervous energy about trying to get everything right?


Oh, I totally had that nervous energy of getting everything right. Absolutely. One of the benefits I did have, though, was to be able to sort of gauge for myself whether I thought something really had validity or not. I remember when the hype around the Mozart effect was going on. I remember being kind of cynical when I first heard about it on the radio.

The state of Georgia was actually sending every baby from the hospital home with a Mozart music CD. That was long before I was a parent. But I remember thinking that was bunk even as I was listening to it on our national news. 

But we do know now that babies learn about music in the womb. There have been brilliantly designed studies to show that a baby who hears a piece later in gestation will respond to that piece differently after they are born, compared to music they have never heard before. But that doesn’t make babies smarter.

When I was late in pregnancy with my youngest, I played the same Kindermusik songs anytime I was in the car. I knew he’d be in the car a lot while I was driving his older siblings around. And I noticed that when I played those particular songs in the car after he was born, he calmed down more quickly. It was pretty cool.

There is one science story I did pay close attention to after I became a parent. There was new research about a developmental window to develop a musician’s brain. And that is true science. And I did act on it by exposing my son to music, starting with piano lessons at a young age. 

Do they know what the precise “window of time” is? 

Research has found an actual window of time when kids are primed to develop a musician’s brain. Neuroscience researchers at McGill University in Montreal presented their research on this a while back. They said it’s somewhere in the range of seven, eight, or nine years old.

And can you explain what the window means?

What it means is if you have early intensive training in music, you develop a thicker corpus callosum, which is the structure between the two lobes of the brain that helps messages travel quickly between the lobes. So there’s more efficient communication within [works for me, except please replace the word “within” with “among”] the sensory, thinking and motor areas of the brain. Synaptic pruning happens later on. But within that 7-8-9 year-old window, intensive training will give you a musician’s brain for life. 

They can actually see the difference on a brain scan. The part that’s less certain is what does that give you other than facility with an instrument? They’re still trying to tease out long-term effects. It’s certainly not IQ, and it’s certainly not higher grades. Those two factors have been debunked. But it does appear to confer other benefits, including the ability to do fine-grained pitch distinction.

Another researcher, Nina Krauss, has done published research that’s shown that the people who had early-life music training were less likely to experience hearing deficits years later. When this research came across my desk at the Globe and Mail, before it was in the news headlines, I found it pretty stunning that you could change the structure of someone’s brain if you had that training early enough. 

I enrolled my child in piano lessons at age five, because I wanted to hit that window. So I did that sciency-mom thing. My son didn’t continue playing piano. But nevertheless, he had four solid years of training. And I do feel that if he should ever want to pick it up again later, he’s got a foundation so it shouldn’t be too intimidating. 

That’s how it is as a parent. You lay the pieces, expose them to different things, but you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I’m curious, when you started writing the book, did you expect topics to go as far and wide as they did?

Before working on the book I spent many years exploring my curiosity on basically anything to do with music that interested me. I went down long, deep rabbit holes geeking out on everything from clinical music therapy to cultural healing strategies. I had three times more research than what ended up in the book. 

The first book outline was actually a PhD thesis that I had proposed to a medical ethnomusicology program I was accepted into but decided not to enter. So my original focus was to explore the parallels between new findings in neuroscience and age old music healing strategies. But early in the book writing process, the decision was made to add more memoir elements. The science parts needed to become more personal and health focused. 

You have a really unique experience and expertise and it shows in the book. So does your health journalism background. You did a great job explaining in a clear way that makes sense. It’s very easy to follow.

I made that a conscious decision. The book has so much dense information, but I truly wanted it to be an enjoyable easy read, because I felt that I would just be able to send the messages to far more people that way. But you know, at times I wondered, is it too breezy? 

I don’t think so. I like the movement towards not making things more complex than they need to be. Even in academia. It’s such a contrast to when complexity of sentences supposedly signaled smartness. But it’s actually harder to say something simply. And it’s so much better to keep it accessible. 

I didn’t conduct original research, I’m not a neuroscientist or an anthropologist. But the thing I am proud about in the book is that as someone looking with a bird’s eye view at all these disciplines, I felt that I could find interesting connections between them that actually have interested people in those fields.

I love the central theme of your book: everyone is musical. That musical talent isn’t limited to a few.

Talent is a weird word. And we tend to think of it as being a genetic advantage, something you’re born with. But it turns out, musical ability has far more to do with a person’s exposure and their parents’ backgrounds rather than their genetics. 

So we’re all “wired for music.” And you say this applies to singing ability as well. This challenged my own thinking. I always believed you either have a voice for singing or you don’t. Did you think like that at one point too? 

I totally did think that way. Because the idea of musical talent is very prevalent in the classical music world. If you have perfect pitch, for example, you have a huge advantage. And that’s a phenomenon that can’t be easily developed. However, you can develop a relative pitch, where someone gives you a note and you know very quickly where the other notes fit.

But besides perfect pitch, there are many elements that make singing sound good. Are you able to sing in tune? Do you know how to interpret music? Do you know how to use the anatomy you’ve been given? Do you have confidence and a chance to practice? Is your tone one that’s pleasing to your culture? 

Traveling to different places expanded my understanding of what a good singer is. I visited places where people sang effortlessly with different voices. And I learned that not all cultures placed value on singing in perfect tune. 

I loved reading about how music is made and experienced in different places.

When I visited Brazil, for example, singing that might be considered flat in Western cultures was an expression of choice. There was less rigidity about singing in tune and more acceptance for variation. Here, it’s like you either sing like somebody on America’s Got Talent or American Idol, or you shouldn’t sing at all. There’s less tolerance for imperfection and less permission, too.

I think people used to feel more permission to sing in churches, because the idea was praise of God. So you actually were doing your duty as a good Christian to sing. Even if you didn’t like your voice, even if other people didn’t like your voice, no one would boot you out of the church if you didn’t sing beautifully, because you’re there to praise. 

But I think in a more secular world we have less tolerance than we used to have for hearing different voices sing.  And the less tolerance we have, the less people are able to sing and practice.

I’ve seen that in my own family. My grandmas didn’t sing perfectly, but they were always singing.

I never thought I had a tremendous singing voice. But I’m learning more about how the vocal apparatus works. Now that I’m doing choir, I’m required to dabble in different musical experiences and challenge myself. And I’m learning more about the mechanics of having a good voice. For example, if you clench your tongue, the back of your tongue, or jaw, it changes your voice and tone. 

So if you tell yourself, “Oh, I don’t have a beautiful voice, because I wasn’t born with one” you should tell yourself instead that you’ve never had a chance to learn how to sing. To learn how to hold your musculature around your face, or what you do with your tongue. And what to do with your breathing—it’s everything. And singers and vocalists know this, but the rest of us don’t. In fact, some people who are public speakers actually go get singing lessons to improve the timbre of their voices. I wish I had known about this stuff years ago. 

Yeah. That’s so interesting. Your discussion on singing really resonated. I told my adult daughter about it and she said if you think of singing in public, you think of karaoke in a bar. It’s like something you need a few drinks to do. 

What’s sad is that a lot of people develop a negative self concept for singing at a young age, often around five. And if you come from a culture or a family background where no one sings, how are you supposed to feel comfortable? So, I show in the book how a lot of those ideas are cultural.

There’s a really neat book on this called Bad Singer. The author, Tim Falconer, was born with amusia, or tone deafness. It’s pretty rare, affecting a few percent of people—though as many as one in four people think they have it. Here’s a little trick to know: If you can tell if another person is singing out of tune, then you don’t have it. Anyway, the book chronicles his journey of taking singing lessons and eventually singing in public–that’s sort of the climax of the book. It’s a fun read.

And this was so fun too! We truly appreciate you taking the time to talk. Thanks so much.

For more, check out Adriana Barton’s website and subscribe. You can also follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


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