Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Music and the mind

Despite being a 30-year veteran teacher of what is referred to as a "core" discipline -- science -- I have always been vociferous in my support of increasing the emphasis on arts, music, and electives.  In fact, I find the use of the word "core" a little insulting to the teachers and students in these latter subjects.  It makes it sound like science, math, English, and social studies are central to a child's education, and everything else is just peripheral fluff.

In fact, for many of us, it's just the opposite.  Think about what classes you remember from your own trip through the school system as being the most inspiring.  For a lot of us, it's those "electives" -- the subjects that are the first ones on the chopping block when funding gets cut.  Further, think about your own life as an adult.  What activities or pursuits bring you the most joy now?  With no slight meant against the math teachers, I doubt very much that most of us look forward to our leisure time so we can sit and do algebra.

Now, I'm not saying that arts and music are more important than science, math, English, and social studies; but they are easily as important.  Which, unfortunately, is not how a lot of the people involved in educational oversight see things.  And what is the most short-sighted about this approach is that the benefits of education in creative disciplines spill over into the "core" courses.

Some experimental support for this contention appeared last week in the journal Neuron, in a paper by Sibylle C. Herholz and Robert J. Zatorre called "Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure."  What they found is that studying music improves the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function in response to new information, a capacity called neuroplasticity.

Most examples of neuroplasticity only are operative during a narrow critical period in an individual's life.  In imprinting in ducklings, for example, their ability to learn who their mother is, and follow her around, only lasts for a few days after hatching.  In humans, language learning works in a similar fashion; our ability to learn language peaks in our early years, declining rapidly after age ten or so.

Which is why another appallingly stupid thing about our educational system is how we teach foreign language -- usually starting in middle school, i.e., when we first start to get really bad at learning a new language.  If we took first-year foreign language courses out of middle and high school, and started a program for preschoolers to be in bilingual classes, they'd come out fluent, without ever memorizing a vocabulary list or verb conjugation pattern.

But I digress.

Anyhow, Herholz and Zatorre looked at the effects of musical training on a lot of different modalities in the brain -- auditory, tactile, motor, and cognitive.  The authors write:
Music requires fine-grained perception and motor control that is unlike other everyday activities, thereby reducing confounding influences of other types of experience.  Also, the framework of musical training allows the study of both short- and long-term training effects...  An important higher-level phenomenon in the context of learning and plasticity is that long-term training can result not only in specific learning, but also creates greater potential for short-term changes to occur quickly.  Musical training not only changes the structural and functional properties of the brain, but it also seems to affect the potential for new short-term learning and plasticity.  Such interaction effects of long- and short-term training have been demonstrated in the auditory, in the motor, and in the tactile domain.
They also consider the role of music in developing social skills and teamwork:
Music also has some reward value beyond the pleasurable sounds and direct feedback—it also has an important role in social interactions, both in contexts of group listening and music making.  While the effects of such interactions during music making have not been investigated to our knowledge, the role of social influences and well-being on brain plasticity has been shown in other contexts.  Important aspects in the context of music and learning could include pupil-teacher interactions and imitation learning, social reward and influences on self-perception, but also negative influences like stress in professional situations and performance anxiety.
All of which makes it that much more wrong-headed to cut music programs -- and by extension, art programs and other areas where students are challenged to be creative, to work collaboratively, to express themselves, and simply to enjoy the aesthetic experience that such experiences provide.

[image courtesy of photographer Nickolai Kashirin and the Wikimedia Commons]

One can only hope that studies like this one will underscore the fact that electives and "core" subjects need to be on equal footing, especially with regards to support and funding by school districts.  Cutting program to the bone to focus exclusively on math, science, English, and social studies is completely contrary to what we know about how children learn -- and what activities enrich their lives and broaden their minds.

Now, I think I'll wrap this up -- I just got the sheet music for a piano transcription of Rameau's "Rondeau des Indes Galantes," and I can't let it just sit there unplayed any longer. 

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