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Tuning in to the Musical Brain
What attracts children as strongly as rocks and mud puddles... is considered a higher brain function along with math and chess... and is something a majority of applicants accepted into medical schools have in common?
The answer is music. Music has been shown to directly and consistently enhance mathematical thinking, particularly abstract reasoning skills, in children. Neuroscientists and psychologists who have authored studies on music and the mind believe that the intellectual response to music is inborn. Even at infancy, the brain is specifically wired to receive, process and learn from the highly ordered patterns of sound in music.
In the research studies most often quoted by the press, children who were given music instruction showed dramatic and long lasting improvement in abstract reasoning and math skills. In a recent University of California at Irvine study, preschoolers who received instrument lessons increased their scores on a test of spatial-temporal reasoning by 34%. Rhode Island first graders participating in a special music class raised their math performance on a standardized test from the 38th percentile to the 77th percentile.
Reviews of these and other studies often do not emphasize the fact that the much-touted intellectual gain was observed only in those children who received skills-based music instruction. Control groups involved in sing-along time or general music classes typical of many schools showed little or no improvement in their test scores.
For children to reap the full intellectual benefits of music, they need to be taught the fundamentals of the discipline, specifically, tonal and rhythm patterns (the ABC’s of music) as well as how to read and write notes. This can be accomplished in classes that stress these basics within a balanced music curriculum or through instrumental lessons.
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What is skills-based music instruction?
There are several activities at the core of a well-balanced, skills-oriented class:
- Singing comes very naturally to children. Singing teaches pitch accuracy and is helpful in ear training and learning to audiate—to hear music in ones head. When we nurture a child’s own voice we are also helping develop a musicality which can later transfer to other areas such as playing an instrument.
- Steady Beat Activities:
- The steady beat is the continuous underlying pulse in music. Being able to latch onto and keep the beat is essential to singing or playing an instrument successfully and musically. In addition to clapping or tapping, steady beat activities can include rocking, marching, and walking to the beat, or keeping the beat on rhythm instruments.
- Moving to music helps to internalize abstract musical concepts such as the macro beat and tempo (speed) nuances. Movement serves as a vehicle for expressing feelings and for developing both impulse control and large motor skills. Movement also fulfills the primary function of the inner ear— balance and spatial orientation. Once that need is satisfied, the ear is ready to listen attentively.
- Tonal and Rhythm Patterns:
- Tones (sounds at different pitches) and rhythm (combinations of short and long sounds) form the basic vocabulary of music. In the opening phrase of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, for example, the tonal pattern is “mi re do re mi mi mi .” The rhythmic organization of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” would be “long, long, long, long, short, short, short, short, long.” These regularly recurring tonal and rhythm patterns are to music what words and phrases are to language, and understanding them is fundamental to children’s musical growth. We teach our children to talk, and later to read and write, by speaking to them from birth in short repeated phrases. Similarly in music, children need to hear, echo, and finally read and write these essential building blocks starting at an early age.
- Playing Instruments:
- Simple tonal instruments such as resonator bars, xylophones, or keyboards are important in visually mapping the relationship between high and low sounds, that is, discovering the musical “number line.” Rhythm instruments provide the chance to practice beat and rhythm competency as well as to find creative ways of producing sound.
- Listening Activities
- Short listening activities help children develop focus and stimulate the imagination—the beginning of abstract thinking skills. Learning to really listen—to discriminate sounds and their messages in an age of noise bombardment and visual distraction—is a life skill essential to all learning. There is a strong case for including classical music in children’s listening repertoire. The brain thrives on pattern, and the more intricate the patterns of sound, as with classical music, the greater the learning.
All of the above activities are important to help fulfill our children’s natural musical potential and to ensure that they reap the intellectual rewards of music. A strong foundation in these basics by age 10, while the brain is still developing and malleable, can make a lasting difference in a child’s intellectual and musical growth.
What is appropriate for different age groups?
To children music is “play” in every sense of the word. It is essential that our children’s early experiences with music be successful and fun. This means that in addition to teaching the basics, a good music program will be inviting and age-appropriate.
Toddlers: For this age group a parent-tot class is ideal. While your child is busy absorbing and moving to music, you are gaining a new repertoire and creating a special bond with your little one.
Toddlers are beings in motion, and music is the perfect vehicle for directing and freeing their movements. When they dance, rock, or bounce with you, they are feeling and internalizing the steady beat of your motions. Contrary to popular belief, toddlers can also be excellent listeners. They are fascinated by sound, whether it’s a bee buzzing or a clarinet melody. The different shapes, feel, and sounds of simple rhythm instruments also mesmerize toddlers. Being able to make a steady sound by himself on an instrument such as the drum is very empowering to a young child who wants to “do it myself!”
Even though at this age children may not be willing to echo back chanted tonal and rhythm patterns, it is still important that they hear them. The patterns are being recorded for future reference.
Singing, listening, and music-making are a completely natural and enjoyable part of a tiny child’s being. As long as a class is presented with joy, well balanced between the activities highlighted above, with plenty of opportunity to shake a toe, the wonder of music will be kept alive for children, and they will be hooked for life.
Preschoolers: Children 3 1/2 to 5 years respond well to the endless creative possibilities of melody and rhythm. They bring a marvelous sense of wonder and imagination to music, and music in turn speaks to their budding creativity and invention. With their love of pretend and more sophisticated motor skills, preschoolers eagerly “become” the music using imaginative movements or percussion instruments to bring what they hear to life.
Children in this very social age group enjoy playing together as a simple voice or percussion ensemble, as well as taking turns conducting with their own choices of tempo and style. They are now ready to practice repeating tonal patterns and short motifs from familiar songs on a melodic instrument such as resonator bars. Listening activities take on a rich character at this age: children respond openly to music, freely verbalizing how a song makes them feel and what they picture when they hear certain music. Note and rhythm recognition can be introduced to children who are already learning words and numbers in preschool.
Elementary School Years: If there is a critical age for a skills-based music program for children, it is between kindergarten and fourth grade. These are the years when children need to be exposed to as many different facets of the discipline as possible. Elementary school students are ready to learn not only tonal patterns but also entire tunes on melodic instruments, such as tonal bars or piano keyboards. They are mature enough to fit two or more independent melodic and rhythmic parts together to create music as a true ensemble. They may begin improvising by learning to change basic rhythm and tonal patterns, first vocally and later with simple instruments. Music history—the story of the different styles of music which evolved over the centuries and the composers who have created them—is fascinating to this age group. This is the time, too, to make sure young students are hearing classical music rich in the patterns that their developing minds thrive on.
Last but not least is music theory—the study of how sounds are organized and notated. By this age children are experts at counting, simple addition and puzzle solving, and they delight in discovering the math in written music. To them, cracking the code of music notation becomes a game of numbers and pattern recognition. Once students know a little about written notation, they are ready to take their first creative steps at composing. And with fluency in basic tonal patterns, they can move on to harmony.
What about instrumental lessons?
Playing an instrument is arguably the epitome of a skills-based music experience, requiring that many different brain functions—auditory, visual, cognitive, affective, and motor-related—be used simultaneously. There is evidence from MRI’s of musicians’ brains that playing an instrument causes physiological changes in the cortex, perhaps from the tremendous amount of neural activity which takes place while performing.
When should a child begin taking instrumental lessons? Suzuki has shown that even 3-year-olds can learn to play an instrument. Researchers often support the “earlier the better” theory, pointing out that the most intense neural development is taking place in the first few years of a child’s life. Some children are indeed ready to study violin or another instrument at an early age. For many, though, even sitting still for a few minutes at a time may be too difficult. Private instruction then becomes a very frustrating experience for both parent and child.
Chances of success with instrumental lessons may be greatest in the elementary school years. Mastering the technical challenges of the instrument as well as learning to read music can come together more quickly when fine motor and reading skills are already in place. Children often have an intuitive sense of what instrument is right for them and when they are ready to start on an instrument. They should be our guides in these decisions. If children’s natural musical inclinations are nurtured and if music is “play,” they will come to instruments of their own accord at the proper time.
Parents can best be supportive by making music a happy part of the routine at home; by taking children to concerts; and by ensuring that children receive skills-based instruction—either in or out of school. With a strong foundation in music, a child will have a much easier time learning to play in tune and in time on an instrument. She will be able to make music instead of struggling with notes. Then playing an instrument becomes fun!
A question of balance
At the newly formed M.I.N.D. Institute (Music Intelligence Neural Development) the intriguing role of music on intelligence and the implications for childhood education continue to be examined. The intellectual value of music may, however, be just the icing on the cake. Music has long been known to enhance creativity and imagination—important in today’s society, which demands new ways of thinking and problem solving. Music has the ability to direct behavior by calming and focusing. Performing in an instrumental group, too, teaches teamwork and understanding the relationship of the part to the whole. Even learning to play simple melodies on an instrument gives a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Educators repeatedly find that success in music fosters success in other areas of learning.
As research reacquaints us with the many benefits (intellectual, emotional, social, creative) of this discipline, we need to be aware of two extremes. One avoids teaching children the fundamentals of music, particularly in the elementary school years, while the other pushes children at all costs to study an instrument at a very early age. By finding a balance between these two poles and respecting the child’s inner plan, we can make sure that our children’s early experiences with music will be creative, intellectually enriching, and joyful.
By Jane Singhal, Published in Bay Area Parent, March 1999, and The California Music Teacher, Fall 1999.
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