Music to My Ears, Music to My Brain:
The Effects of Music on Brain Functions and Learning
Music is a language. In fact I would go so far as to posit it is the real universal language. For some time, mathematicians have been want to claim theirs is the universal language. However, math may be a language which can be understood by anyone, but it must be first learned like any other language. Music, on the other hand, can be understood and interpreted by anyone. Today’s mathematicians should remember math was invented by musicians, and not the other way round. In other core portions of education music is being discovered as an effective teaching implement. The education of Americans has become a major debate. Educators, administrators, politicians and parents are constantly searching for and arguing over the methods used to enlighten the unenlightened. Mathematic, science, reading and writing skills are all falling behind our competitors. Somehow, ways must be discovered to bring everyone up to speed. Now, more than ever, schools need music to help them bring knowledge to the masses. Yet, across the country music is being cut from schools instead of being promoted. Money concerns are toted as the primary reason in most cases. Music programs are expensive, and, until the recent past, have been seen as nothing more than extracurricular. This is a failing point in the nation’s attempts to educate itself. Music can do so many things. It can make you happy or sad. Sometimes a story is hidden in the music, sometimes a message. Music can calm the savage beast. And now, recent research has presented the idea music can be a powerful tool in education at all levels.
Dr. Xan Johnson, of the University of Utah’s Graduate Department of Theatre, has taken the time to gather a great deal of information on the brain, its functions and how outside stimuli affects it. Modern brain research, among other things, divides the brain into several memory banks which are accessed for various activities. These banks include (but are not limited to) a Short-Term, a Long-Term, a Physical, an Emotional, a Creative, and one for Logic. Mental and physical activity accesses the appropriate memory bank(s) in order to come to fruition. Many of a person’s daily thoughts and actions may access multiple banks simultaneously. When these banks are used they react in a manner which results in a callusing effect. Researchers have found this callusing is tantamount to increased brain efficiency. Similar to muscular growth, repetition continues to further this progression. Therefore, the more one exercises one’s brain, by accessing memory banks, the more efficient the brain functions, which, many see as becoming smarter. Naturally the definition of smart is debatable; therefore this discussion will focus on efficiency and capability of the mind and body in the conduct of action.
The idea of practice makes perfect is far from a new one. However, as an edict it has seldom applied to the simple act of thinking. Or, has it? When an athlete practices his/her basic skills he/she is accessing the Physical Memory Bank, reinforcing action and increasing proficiency. This is where music pulls ahead of the pack. Music and other performing arts are the only activities which access all of the memory banks simultaneously, actually exercising the entire brain at once. Long and Short-Term Memory is used to maintain an understanding of how to perform, and interpret the current selection. Physical Memories control the body’s ability to reenact muscle movement previously learned. Performers use their own personal Emotional Memories to help convey felling. Music is an ever-changing entity, which calls for continuous Creative Processes. One could continue almost indefinitely as to the many ways the brain is used during the performance of music, however, there is no need to belabor the point.
Furthermore, one does not necessarily need to engage in the physical act of music to achieve an increase in brain efficiency. Other researchers have found the simple act of listening to music can convey an increase in brain capability. In 1993, Gordon L. Shaw, Ph.D., conducted an experiment, the results of which stirred up national attention. Dr. Shaw observed the effects of classical music on the brain, beginning with three-year-olds, and continuing on to college students (Burack, 84). It was with these college students where his most important results can be found. His findings proclaimed the students “who listened to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Minor saw their IQs increase as much as nine points (Burack, 84).” Very recent press releases have gone so far as to say that not only does listening to music present these benefits, but the actual act of thinking about music may be able to create similar results (Harvey). Interestingly enough, similar tests on Alzheimer patients found “enhanced short-term spatial-temporal reasoning” and “epilepsy patients had reduced seizure activity when the Mozart Sonata was played to them (Musica, 1).”
People often wonder why music so powerful. Movies use swells of music to pull audiences emotionally one direction than another. A certain song might make one cry. Some songs have even started riots. And, then there is the commercial jingle which is impossible to shake from your mind. How is it music is able to cut humans to the quick in such a fashion? It is possibly because music is entrenched in our very mind? Dr. Shaw’s interest in brain theory began in the early seventies with research into spatial reasoning and its use in certain kinds of problem solving (Burack, 84). Together with Xiaodan Leng, “he devised a computer model of the brain” which “used musical notes to represent areas of brain activity, and were surprised to find that the overall sound resembled classical music” (Burack, 84). This brain model opens an interesting door: “What if humans are musical in nature?” Perhaps, music is a universal language, locked away in the gray matter of the mind.
Regardless of the philosophical explorations which could grow from these ideas, it is safe to say music is and can be helpful in advancing brain efficiency, productivity and creativity, and naturally, learning. Other researchers have built upon the initial findings of Dr. Shaw. A 1999 report entitled Champions of Change: The impact of the Arts on Learning, which integrated seven major studies concluded music and art “have a dramatic influence on elementary and high school students’ performance on standardized tests (Young, 1).” Teachers who have begun to use music in the classroom as an aid to core classes have seen numerous gains. They have reported music can increase spatial reasoning, which is essential to grasping mathematics and aids scientific thought. Furthermore, music helps to develop vocabulary, understanding of new symbols, interpretation skills, personal creativity and self-discipline (Argabright, 1). Even Dr. Shaw compounded on his own discoveries in later studies. One, conducted with psychologist Frances Rauscher, found preschoolers who received weekly piano lessons scored “34 percent higher on tests designed to measure spatial-temporal reasoning skills those required for mathematics, chess, science, and engineering than classmates who received no music lessons (Burack, 84).” In 2000, Dr. Shaw presented a “Music Spatial-Temporal Math Program (Musica, 1)” which combined special software, piano/keyboard training and math integration. The results were as such:
After 8 months of the Program presented in the book, inner-city 2nd graders
strikingly increased their average on the national Stanford 9 math scores
and were performing at the same level on advanced math concepts as 4th
graders from a higher socio-economic school. This dramatic finding found
after publication of the book provides a major benchmark for future work. (Musica, 1)
In addition to the physical and intellectual effects on the brain, music provides an aid to education by making knowledge accessible. Very possibly this is the result of music’s effect on emotions. The power of emotion over the human psyche is vast, so incredible; in fact, it would require its own individual investigation. Surely it has received such, on numerous occasions. Ruth Argabright writes in her article, Connecting with Music: “When other curricular areas are integrated with music, learning in these areas becomes more meaningful for the students (Argabright, 1).” Advertising, entertainment and politics all use emotional tools to pull our opinion, often with the use of money. Music induces emotion, and emotion creates powerful memories.
Memory is integral to education. Learners are constantly locking facts and images into their minds. If one looks a simple example of this, the alphabet, it offers an interesting paradigm. Most probably remember learning the “abc’s” through song: “Now I know my abc’s/Won’t you come and sing with me?” The majority of individuals have been required to memorize something important in life. Try to remember how difficult it was. Next, imagine the complexity of committing a piece of music to memory.
Music is a Rosetta stone of sorts, which allows for a vast variety of methods in communication. Furthermore, it is accessible to all, at many levels. In and age when education is a major societal issue, and most are concerned about it effectiveness, it seems odd a tool as powerful as music is shunned. Jump on the band wagon, and get the show on the road. Music can propel education, and learning in general, into a new universe of possibilities. What is the risk? Only a few dollars? Music fulfills emotionally as well as intellectually. The possibility of harm is practically nil.
It was Plato who said: “I would teach music, physics, and philosophy; but most important, music, for in the patterns of music and all the arts are the keys of learning (Argabright, 2).”
Argabright, Ruth. “Connecting with Music.” General Music Today 18 (2005): 5-6. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyo. 4 Dec. 2006.
Burack, Jodi. “Uniting Mind and Music: Shaw’s Vision Continues.” American Music Teacher 55 (2005): 84. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyo. 4 Dec. 2006.
Johnson, Xan. Personal interview. Feb. 2005.
“Noon Report.” Paul Harvey News and Comment. ABC Radio Network. KOWB, Laramie, Wyo. Fall 2006.
Shaw, Ph.d., Gordon L. “Author Comments: Keeping Mozart in Mind by Gordon L. Shaw, Ph.D. (Academic Press, 2000).” Musica: the Music and Science Information Computer Archive. 14 July 2000. M.I.N.D. Institute/University of California, Irvine. 7 Dec. 2006 .
Young, Jr., Terrence E. “Keeping the Arts Alive.” Library School Journal 51 (2005): 88. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyo.Edu. 3 Dec. 2006.