Whenever politicians who reflect the opinions of the press are faced with criticism of the education system, they immediately adopt the knee-jerk reaction and put an intense focus on numeracy and literacy. In an already crowded curriculum this intensification requires cuts somewhere; the easy answer is in sports and the arts. In our culture, sport is revered and does have physical benefits meaning it is the arts that face the chop! This view degrades the arts, if examined closely they contribute massively to the economy and importantly to the psycho/social health of the nation. This Newsletter will focus on one aspect of the arts, music.
There has long been an understanding that the study of music increases a child’s intellectual capacity. However, even though studies from Harvard have not been able to confirm this hypothesis, they still acknowledge the benefits of musical studies. Primarily, it promotes healthy development of the brain which leads to an increased efficiency of a child’s basic ability.
In a most simplistic descriptions of brain development, we learn to achieve desired outcomes. Attempts at acting in a particular way initiates the connection between the brain’s neurons to direct the movement of the body (the only thing the brain can actually do is initiate movement). The more the action is repeated the stronger becomes the neural pathway and as more and more behaviours are learned; we develop a network of pathways that can be accessed to help us navigate through life. The governing maxim for neural development is ‘the more the neurons are fired together the more they are wired together’. Therefore, the richer the networks the more resourceful the brain.
Learning a musical instrument is the great connector right across the brain; it not only recruits both sides but the ‘independent’ behaviours primarily regulated on a particular side, have to be synchronised to create music. The benefit is that the neural pathways are not in a specific section of the brain as is the case for some behaviours they are across the whole brain especially in the:
- Occipital lobe - for reading and interpreting rhythm
- Parietal lobe – integrates incoming senses
- Temporal lobe – processes sound
- Frontal lobe – integrates incoming senses
- Anterior corpus collosum – coordination across the brain
The synchronisation is not only across the cerebrum but incorporates the lower levels of the brain. When the rhythm matches that of the brain’s alpha waves it creates a sense of calm.
The cerebrum has areas that specifically oversee specific tasks and it is in the cerebrum that new learning takes place; this is the most important cognitive consideration for schools. The synchronised necessity to create music forces the expansion of potential cognitive connections and that influences our intellectual performance. These benefits are reinforced through practice, the consolidation of the networks and increased connectivity!
The benefits for the students have been demonstrated over the years and are numerous. The increased formation of networks and the connectivity across the brain through the unique demands required to produce music result in:
- Improved short and long-term memory
- Better results in cognitive tests
- Increased ability to focus on a task
- Improved gross motor skills
- Enhanced physical and psychological health
- More effective language development
The result is the students have better learning outcomes, healthier sense of self and they approach their lessons with more confidence.
The power and importance of music is bluntly illustrated in an examination of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease, afflictions that devastates the brain. There is some belief that music, like all enhanced cognitive activity helps delay the onset of these ailments but there is no dispute about the importance of music as a lifeline for these patients. It is the procedural and explicit memories that are first lost, things like events, knowledge and reasoning but the memories of music remain.
The value of music in calming an individual’s levels of distress has been demonstrated by David Akomo from Weber State University. His team confirmed the value of Shamic drumming by reducing their levels of anxiety when dealing with Vietnam Veterans who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The use of rhythm is an integral part of all music and dance therapy to deal with all forms of mental disturbance.
Music is undoubtedly important to us as a species, all cultures practice it and there is a common predicable structure that has a soothing effect. There is evidence of it being performed for over 30,000 years with artefacts such as percussion instruments, bone flutes and jaw harps being found in archaeological digs. It really is a primitive but deep form of communication that not only conveys the message, it assigns a level of importance through the emotional content of that message. Historically it has been used in most cultures as a healing process or an appeal to some god.
Music has always been a cohesive element in any community. It is used in all ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and the like and it brings special meanings for couples and individuals; music moves us all. Why this is so is unclear but it is probably due to the beat. Humans prefer the repeated regular sound – it is hard not to link this back to a heart beat a not unimportant sound! In music this beat can come through different rhythms such as 4/4, 2/4, or 3/4 but it is in these divisions of eight both for the pitch and rhythm!
Education systems are, or should be always looking for ways to improve the learning outcomes for their students and it is no surprise that Finland, that country that is always held up as an exemplary model has made music compulsory for students throughout their whole school career.
But, what about those students, who have suffered early childhood abuse or neglect we are most interested in helping? Oliver Sacks said it best; ‘music evokes emotions and emotions bring with it memory … it brings back the feeling of life where nothing else can’. He was referring to dementia at the time but I contend it equally applies to those kids who have their feeling of life ripped out of them. It provides a structure and predictability, two pillars to help these kids regain control of their lives. Music will help them gain the benefits outlined above without the threat of their emotions being publicly examined. Music, and dance is used as a tool for therapeutic interventions. Perhaps the rhythm of the music mimics the soothing rocking of a mother who was there just to make them feel alright!