The Key to Higher Learning

(A look into music and its effect on brain development)

Music brings to each person their own unique experience and emotional response. For each of us enter life with music. From the sound of our mother singing lullabies to the final funeral march; music is a constant in our lives. Have you ever wondered why music is playing in the grocery store, the dentist office, the doctors’ office, and elevators? Why do people feel the need to bring in music that does not relate to their business? Is it that music provides something to our state of mind? I believe that music has a direct influence on our actions. Music impacts who we are and who we will become.

Music cleanses the understanding; inspires it, and lifts it into a realm which it would not reach if it were left to itself. ~Henry Ward Beecher

For over fifty years, the link between music education and brain development or intellectual growth has been researched. Several studies have shown astonishing results establishing that music does play an important role in who we become. Music helps “unlock” the learning potential in our brain which is needed to enhance our knowledge. Music aids in developing communication skills, strengthening memory, enhancing creativity, increasing self esteem and social skills, developing perceptual motor skills, increasing learning capabilities, healing the body, providing sensory integration, and motivating or increasing productivity. Music is a part of shaping each and every person’s life. Music does influence us.

The following research supports the theory that music not only can be calming, but also assists in regaining the ability to focus and attend to tasks. This new found attention is what brings us to a higher level of learning. Therefore it is important to include music in the daily activities of children and teens. Music can be a very beneficial tool in every classroom for behavior management, as well as keeping children on task, opening them up for further learning. This is our children’s key to success.

The Mozart Effect:

According to Don Campbell (1997), the power of Mozart’s music came to public attention in 1993 when Gordon Shaw and Dr. Frances Rauscher, and their team at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory in Irvine, founded “the Mozart Effect”. Rauscher and Shaw hypothesized that listening to a specific music would produce a short term enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning skills. They chose a particular Mozart sonata which had natural sequences of patterns and symmetries. These patterns actually match the internal structure of the brain. The study of thirty-six undergraduates from the psychology department proved an increase in spatial-temporal reasoning skills. These college students’ IQ increased by nine points after listening to music of Mozart. Although the effect lasted only ten to fifteen minutes, the relationship between music and spatial reasoning skills was evident. The theory developed that listening to Mozart, whose music has a mathematical complexity, will make you smarter. Dr. Shaw and his research partner, Dr. Frances Rauscher furthered their studies by proving that keyboard lessons given to pre-schoolers, over a period of six months, also increased their spatial-temporal reasoning skills by 34 per cent more than pre-schoolers who did not receive the music lessons. Furthermore, this effect would be long term. Dr. Gordon Shaw was quoted as saying, “Mozart’s music may warm up the brain. We suspect that complex music facilitates certain complex neuronal patterns involved in high brain activities like math and chess.” (Campbell, 1997, pg.15-17) Media termed the results of these studies as “the Mozart effect” and the public grew increasingly interested. Hence, further studies were promoted.

A follow-up study was conducted by projecting sixteen abstract figures, similar to folded pieces of paper, on an overhead screen for one minute each, for seventy nine students. The students were tested to see if they could tell how the items would look when they were unfolded. Over a five day period, one group listened to Mozart, another to silence and another group heard mixed sounds, including music, short stories and dance pieces. At the end of five days, the Mozart group scored sixty two per cent higher while the silence group increased by only fourteen per cent and the mixed group increased by eleven per cent. The scientists suggested that listening to Mozart helps to organize the firing patterns of neurons in the cerebral cortex in association with higher brain function. (Campbell, 1997, pg.15-17)

Again in March 1999, Neurological Research published Dr. Shaw’s study reporting that second graders who played the piano scored twenty seven per cent higher on proportional math and fraction tests. (Campbell, 1997, pg.180-181) The connection between playing an instrument and higher grades in math was confirmed once again.

Another study at Bolton Elementary School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was conducted to challenge the “Mozart effect”. This school was populated with students who averaged an IQ of ninety two among the second and fifth graders. These children had few advantages and not much extracurricular stimulation; as well seventy per cent were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The principal hired a quintet for three years to play for the first, second and third graders for two to three half-hour sessions per week. As well, classical music was played over the school’s intercom system in the halls, library and lunch room. After just three weeks, the first grade teacher noticed a difference in her students’ ability to listen. After the three years, eighty five per cent of the students who had exposure to the classical music tested above grade level for reading and eighty nine per cent tested above average for math. This study further acclaimed the incredible impact that music has on children’s learning abilities and academic performances.

Media attention provoked continuous studies. Mozart’s music was known to improve attention and performance in students. Was this increased attention and performance due to the fact that Mozart’s music opens the ear to listening, not just hearing? Listening is an active skill, while hearing is passive. I believe that the theory of the Mozart Effect lives with the awakening of our listening abilities – the ability to concentrate and focus. Once we develop this skill, we are capable of increasing our learning potential.

However, my interpretation is that if we expose children to music, whether as a listener or a player, it is good for the brain. Music stimulates a creative thinking and active listening that can only lead to true learning.

Multiple Intelligences:

Within the essence of true learning, we must realize that we have various strengths working together to reach our potential. Dr. Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard University, created a theory of multiple intelligences in 1983. His theory suggested that the traditional measurement of intelligence, based on IQ testing, is far too limited. Instead, Dr. Gardner proposed eight different intelligences to account for a broader range of human potential in children and adults. These intelligences are:

Linguistic (word smart)
Logical / Mathematical (number/reasoning smart)
Interpersonal (people smart)
Intrapersonal (self smart)
Bodily-kinaesthetic (body smart)
Musical (music smart)
Spatial (picture smart)
Naturalist (nature smart)

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences provides a theoretical foundation for recognizing the different abilities and talents of students. This theory acknowledges that some students may not be verbally or mathematically gifted, but may have an expertise in other areas, such as music, spatial relations, or interpersonal knowledge. Teaching and assessing learning in this manner allows a wider range of students to successfully participate in classroom learning. This suggests educating the whole person. In Fowler’s (1990) article, Gardner states, “As important as intelligence is, character and vision and responsibility are at least as important, probably more important”. This, once again, validates teaching to the whole child.

We all use different forms of intelligences combined for optimal learning experiences. However, it is important to note that we may have a higher level of one intelligence than another. These intelligences form our strengths and weaknesses of who we are. Since we all learn differently, music may provide an area in which some students may excel in – an area where they experience a sense of achievement. Music can complete the process of educating.

The intelligences can be linked to each other through developing various skills. Making music helps children utilize, develop, and strengthen several aspects of intelligence. Through listening to music, singing, playing an instrument, our minds gets excited about learning. This, in turn, equates to stimulating young children’s abilities to develop acquisition skills. Turner (2004) also states that singing improves verbal and linguistic ability and promotes communication skills and self confidence. Words and music are linked together because children are acquiring skills in both language and music at the same time. Singing also relaxes children, enabling them to breathe deeper and more frequently, feeding their brain with oxygen, and boosting their sense of well-being. (pg.111-116)

By connecting sound, movement, speech and interaction with a musical component, it is possible to activate and integrate more of the brain than with any other educational tool. By drawing to music, speaking in different accents (the musical quality of language), rapping spontaneously, and becoming aware of both the active (playing an instrument or singing) and passive (listening, imaging, or using music in the background) aspects of music, children can improve their mathematics, language, coordination, social and personal skills. The use of multiple forms of intelligence allows them to integrate and harmonize as well as use their brains to their greatest potential. (Campbell 2000)

Therefore, students who are involved with music in any way, create a positive influence on their overall intelligence.

Brain Activity and Development

Many questions have arisen about the effect that music has on brain development. We must recognize that music has an influence on our brains. It is interesting to note that several studies have acknowledged that musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain.

Trainer (2005) explains that different aspects of music, such as pitch, tempo and timbre, are analyzed by different neural regions. Listening to music starts with the brain stem, the cerebellum, and then moves up to auditory cortices on both sides of the brain. Trying to follow along with familiar music, involves additional regions of the brain. The Hippocampus, our memory center, and the subsections of the frontal lobe, particularly the frontal cortex, are all stimulated. The frontal lobe is associated with planning, self-control, and with perceptual organization. Tapping along with music involves the cerebellum’s timing circuits. The cerebellum is involved in emotions and the planning of movements. Performing music involves the frontal lobes again for the planning behaviour, as well as the motor cortex in the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe is associated with motor movements and spatial skill. The sensory cortex provides tactile feedback when you have pressed the right key on your instrument, or moved the baton where you thought you did. Reading music involves the visual cortex, in the back of your head in the occipital lobe, which is responsible for vision. Listening to or recalling lyrics invoke language centers, as well as other language centers in the temporal and frontal lobes. The temporal lobe is associated with hearing and memory. All areas of the brain respond to music.

Studies continue to show how music influences brain activity with both long term and short term effects. However, further consideration confirms that music effects how the brain develops.

The brain is a very complex organ of the human body. Due to the size of the female pelvis, the brain cannot grow to its full size until after birth. The brain will continue to grow, at the same rate as prenatally, for two years. A process of myelination, which covers the brain’s nerve pathways with a fatty, insulating substance called myelin, enables nerve pathways to improve their performance. As each section of the brain myelinates, that section becomes functional. Interestingly, the auditory nerve in the brain becomes myelinized prenatally which allows babies to hear before they are born.

Studies have shown that fetuses can sense sounds approximately between sixteen to twenty weeks. By the time the fetus reaches twenty-six weeks, they are receptive to music. As well, fetal heart rates slow down nicely in utero when they experience music. (Turner, 2004, pg.41-42) This factor substantiates that babies seem to relax in response to music. With this in mind, some delivery rooms will have relaxing music for both the mother and infant during the birthing process.

As the baby grows and the brain continues to develop, the baby forms perceptions about everything in its environment. Learning occurs through movement and emotional associations; both which music is involved. The continuous brain growth accelerates in the seventh year when the skull expands. After this, the child will start a two year growth period in the auditory area. During this growth, fine discrimination in hearing and producing sounds are developed which makes it the ideal time for music. (Campbell, 2000, pg.189-190) It is within this time, between the second and third grades, children develop more complex skills – listening, processing visual information, and coordinating movement in the brain.

Orff explained, in a typical analogy drawn from the natural world, “It is at the primary school age that the imagination must be stimulated; and the opportunities for emotional development, which contain experience of the ability to feel, and the power to control the expression of that feeling, must also be provided. Everything a child experiences at this age, everything that has been awakened and nurtured, is a determining factor for the whole of life.” (Campbell, 1997, pg.186)

The auditory pathways continue to develop from the ages of nine to eleven, which enhance speech and listening. This is the time when the corpus callosum, the bridge between the left and right sides of the brain, completes its development. Studies have shown that musicians have a thicker corpus callosum which is more fully developed than other people. This validates the idea that music enlarges existing neural pathways and stimulates learning and creativity. As well, the plenum temporal, located in the temporal lobe of the cortex, is also more developed in musicians. This is the area of the brain that is associated with language processing and sound categorization, which suggests a perceptual link between music and language. (1994, Music of the hemispheres) Although, listening to and creating music is primarily a right brain function and learning is primarily a process of the left brain, music links the two halves together. When the two hemispheres are linked together, this connects the memory retrieval mechanisms which enhance learning capability.

Therefore, music does influence brain development and allows for learning to advance to a higher level.

My Own Mozart experiment

Through researching the direct effects of music on the brain, I decided to do my own research with the help of my son, Richard*. The theory of the Mozart Effect particularly intrigued me.

Richard listened to Mozart for fifteen to twenty minutes each night before bedtime. This fit in nicely with our normal routine, as he usually had one hour of reading and listening to music before bed. So, Richard started reading for one half hour and listening to Mozart for one half hour. As well, on occasion, we would play Mozart in the morning during our morning routine before school. I wanted to see if I could see a difference in my son’s behaviour, interest and focus. This research does not have quantitative value and is solely based on my own opinion. Since I based this research on “Mother’s intuition”, my goal was to remain objective.

After a period of three months, I felt that Richard appeared to be more tolerant and more interested in talking in the morning. Previously, our morning routine consisted of my continual persistence in keeping peace between brothers. It had always seemed as though Richard consistently woke up on “the wrong side of the bed”. However, he changed to seem more pleasant and more conversational during the morning. He no longer reacted with an angered response instinctively to teasing.

I also noticed that Richard seemed to more attentive and in control. I believe that the Mozart music has a calming effect which allowed Richard to “slow his thoughts down” and think before he does or says. I also believe that this effected his willingness to listen – which I believe is the key to learning.

My findings are purely subjective. I cannot be sure what cognitive effects that this has had, but I will continue to play Mozart during the mornings. Although, I cannot be sure as to what effect it has on him; it certainly can’t hurt.

Conclusion

Educating children is essential for their growth and development, and music aids in this process.

Music is part of our lives long before we ever take a breath. It is a part of the exquisite universal harmony. It is there – created for us and created by us – to feel, to hear, to enjoy, to treasure through all the moments, hours, days and years of our lives. Our only hope is in keeping the beauty and splendour of music alive is in the legacy we leave our children. (Scarantino, 1997, pg.143)

Music is a necessity, as is music education. It appears that brains are designed to process, appreciate and eventually create music. Music reaches the depths of our brain and body through unconscious systems. Music education, then, is the nurturer of consciousness. It encompasses emotions, politics, cultures, and all dimensions of human life and creates a dynamic world – a world that is full of possibilities.

Music education has a multi-modal nature which reaches all learners. A school that promotes music education may be the happiest and healthiest school of all. Therefore, we must advocate for music education continuance in our schools. For we truly recognize that music is not only part of who each of us are, but music allows us to become who we are. Music education assists all who have the pleasure to experience it. We can say with a sound confidence that music education is a sound approach to advancing our children’s’ learning potential. For music education not only aids in increasing our children’s’ intelligence, but it also allows us all to become well educated. It has been proven that music education promotes higher learning capabilities. Hence, music education is indispensable and the key to higher learning potential.