Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-friendly Classroom: A Review from a Wind Band Educator's Perspective

Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-friendly Classroom

David A. SousaCarol A. Tomlinson Solution Tree Press, 2011 - Educ: Reflation

In Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom, authors David Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson examine the practice of learning differentiation in the modern day classroom.  The book explores challenges in public education where inclusive and differentiated classrooms have become the norm. Some of the key highlights in the book center around the brain’s inability to learn in a fear based setting, how a positive learning environment supports memory and how the brain responds best to patterns in curriculum. “Teachers who differentiate instruction effectively decrease fear of failure responses through addressing student readiness, talking with students about the role of “failure” in learning, sharing their own failures, and providing effective feedback via non-graded formative assessment to help students build toward mastery before summative/graded experiences.”

As a music educator for the Toronto District School Board one of the greatest challenges has been adapting the wind band program to be inclusive of special needs students. My area of research in my PhD Music Education program is learning differentiated wind band education at the elementary level. My school board is currently implementing a program that will see all special education students streamed into regular classes. I currently find myself in a unique position as a music educator. In the first eight years of instrumental teaching, special needs students were included in my classroom. For some, the program was an opportunity to be in an inclusive setting, make music, express oneself kinaesthetically and take part in music curriculum in a meaningful way. For others, the wind band program was overwhelming and often became an arena for acting out and disrupting the class as a whole. The challenge for me was how to engage all students in the act of making music in a positive environment through the traditional wind band medium. 

In 2013, I changed schools and began to teach wind band music in a setting where special needs students were not streamed into the regular classroom. I currently find myself, as part of my schedule, teaching brass instruments to nine special needs students at the Gr. 7 and 8 level. The progress has been phenomenal with real potential for streaming some of the students into my regular intermediate classes. I have set up a framework of research for learning differentiated wind band students and am developing a curriculum of wind band education that works on a unified numbered approach based on the first five notes of the B flat concert scale. This curriculum eliminates the staff and basic notation in order to allow students on different instruments to play music by focusing on one unified line of numbered patterns that they can play in unison, guided by the instructor. 

Differentiation and the Brain’s emphasis on pattern based teaching supports the progress I have seen in developing a structured wind band curriculum that seeks to make learning instruments accessible for all students. The book does, however, have a generalized, common-sense feel about it that underlines the need for teachers to look at the whole, unique individual through relational pedagogy. There is nothing earth-shattering here in terms of neuroscience. The authors use brain lingo to support basic education concepts in dealing with differentiated students. But it is informative and there are some good concepts for educators to reflect on and incorporate in the differentiated classroom.


Music That Moves: How Effective Performance Engages the Brain

​Creative Brains: Music, Art and Emotion
​Music That Moves: How Effective Performance Engages the Brain

Source:
​http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6txK8LXg1o

Summary:
​       In a documentary titled “Creative Brains: Music, Art and Emotion,” Indre Viskontas examines how effective performance engages the brain by investigating how and why people experience chills when listening to music. Though music is subjective and often difficult to measure, Viskontas was able to conduct this study more concretely by using goosebumps as a physical indicator.
​       As a control, the researchers had participants listen to the same snippets of musical phrases, one of Brahms and one of Rachmaninoff. The results of the study indicated that although one person may experience goosebumps by listening to Brahms, the other participant may not receive the same reaction. This is largely due to music preference, an important role in whether the listener will experience goosebumps or not. Our preferences derive from past experience with music which in turn influences what type of music we will enjoy in the future. These preferences can be represented by an inverted U-shaped curve reflecting the correlation between preference and complexity. Viskontas describes the top of the curve as our “sweet spot” where music is at a level where it is complex enough to enjoy, yet not too complex to understand. She also notes that although children love repetition, adults do not, as it becomes boring. Therefore, anticipation and surprise is what allows us to enjoy music. This information is especially useful to musicians when performing as it allows them to understand and maximize the amount of pleasure that audience members experience. Viskontas states that often, it is not the big sound of a symphony that gives listeners goosebumps, rather, a solo instrument that emerges from a big sound. Some psychologists theorize that this is because it 
resembles the cry of a child which we are programmed to autonomically respond to due to evolution. 
​       Goosebumps correspond with the reward circuitry of the brain which is activated when eating, having sex or using drugs. It is important to note that this study comprised of professional musicians only. Interestingly, the participants’ brain scans showed a decrease in brain activity in the medial temporal lobe and ventromedial prefrontal cortex which plays a role in what Viskontas describes as "remembering episodes in our lives". These parts of our brains are active when thinking about day-to-day activities such as taxes, groceries, etc. Participants had stated that listening to music did not produce any associations with objects or events. The decrease in activity may be because as humans, we have too many experiences that cannot be represented or associated with one piece of music. Viskontas however, theorizes that there were no associations or memories evoked because the participants were able to turn off these parts of the brain as a result of being fully immersed in the experience of listening, thereby inducing goosebumps.
​       A follow up study was conducted in 2011 where researchers superimposed fMRI scans of anticipation and release and confirmed that there was a disassociation between the two phases. The caudate nucleus which is involved in sensory function and reward is more active during anticipation but less active in the release phase. Whereas the opposite occurs in the nucleus accumbens which is associated with pleasure.

Reflection:
​       Though I found this study to be interesting, I question whether using goosebumps as a physical indicator is enough to base one’s data on. As someone who enjoys many different types of music, I often feel strongly about songs, however, I rarely experience goosebumps, despite the fact that I really enjoy listening to a particular song. I wonder if this is because I am a musician and am involved in music every day, thereby conditioning my experience. Then again, the experiment only used professional musicians although it was never specified as to what genre of music they play and enjoy. The study also did not mention how many participants there were, the ages or gender of the participants or whether they were familiar with the examples used.
​       I think it is interesting that the results found a decrease in brain activity in the medial temporal lobe and ventromedial prefrontal cortex and this leads me to wonder whether this would also occur in non-musicians. Furthermore, it would be interesting to see if Viskontas' theory is correct - that the decrease in activity is a result of being fully immersed in the music. It would be useful to test the theory out by examining brain activities of participants while listening to music they did not like.
​       At the end of the documentary, a violinist named Heidi Clare performed an excerpt of the same piece twice to demonstrate that a listener’s chance of experiencing goosebumps is also very dependent on the musician’s performance. The first time, she plays mechanically and disengaged and the second time, passionately and fully engaged. As expected, the results were astoundingly different. Although her point is very valid, Heidi exaggerated the two examples too much. When she played it the first time, she played the melody in a very basic way by only using individual notes at a time. The second time she played it, she added many embellishments making it sound more complex and difficult, played it faster and played much more of the piece. Heidi claims that like a light switch, she is instantly able to be fully engaged in her performance. Personally, I do not feel the same when performing or practicing. Although it is likely that I will be more focused, I would not necessarily describe it as instant because I think there are many factors that can come into play and affect my performance, such as my mood, temperature, the condition of the piano, etc. 


References 
​         University of California Television. "Creative Brains: Music, Art and Emotion." YouTube video, 1:11:00. April 25, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6txK8LXg1o



Music and the Brain- A TEDx Talk by Dr. Jessica Grahn

Source:


Summary:

Dr. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Western Ontario, discusses the background of the “Mozart Effect”, which posits that listening to Mozart will make you smarter.

Many products surfaced after the suggestion of the Mozart Effect, claiming to make us smarter. Bach for the Brain, Mozart for the Mind, The Mozart Effect for Moms and Moms-to-be, and Mozart for Accelerated Learning are all examples of products that claim to stimulate bonding, communication and learning before birth; invigorate brain growth and development in the womb; and positively affect emotional perceptions and attitudes from pre-birth onward. The excitement surrounding the notion of the “Mozart Effect” reached a climax when Democratic Governor Georgia Zell Miller put forth a bill that would provide classical CDs to every baby born in the state of Georgia. The media claimed that this was all “backed with science”. 

But as Dr. Grahn explains in her talk, the origin of the Mozart Effect comes down to one study conducted by Frances Rauscher out of the Univeristy of Wisconsin in 1993. In this study, researchers Rauscher, Shaw and Ky wanted to find out if listening to the music of Mozart affected cognitive abilities outside of music.  Students were tested on spatial intelligence (the ability to visualize objects in space) in three different conditions (Mozart music, relaxation instructions and silence). This means that before the test on spatial intelligence, the first group listened to music by Mozart for 10 minutes, the second was instructed on how to relax and the third just sat in silence.  The results of the test showed that the Mozart group scored the highest, which led the media to conclude “Mozart makes you smarter”.

Many questions were raised from this study.  Specifically, what is special about Mozart? Could other kinds of music produce the same results? Could there be some other reason that the Mozart group does better on spatial tests?  Other researchers attempted to replicate results to try to solve this dilemma. One study compared children’s performance on spatial intelligence tests after listening to Mozart versus a popular children’s song.  Results of this study suggested that performance has more to do with enjoyment than the music itself.  Another study compared scores of students who listened to Mozart to those who listened to a Stephen King novel. Results showed that those who preferred the audio book over Mozart performed better after hearing the Stephen King audiobook, and those who preferred Mozart more than the audiobook, did better after hearing Mozart.  This further supported the notion that spatial ability had nothing to do with Mozart or music at all, but instead had to do with enjoyment, and the mood music put them in before the test.  Dr. Grahn explains that mood and emotional state has been found to affect cognitive abilities, such as spatial intelligence. This means that if one is in a positive mood, such as after hearing preferred music, then one is likely to do well on a test of spatial intelligence.

These studies demonstrate that music does not have special cognitive enhancing functions.  However, by changing our mood and emotional state it can produce powerful effects on our body and mind, which in turn can help our performance on tests.

Reflection:

Dr. Grahn’s presentation was very to the point and had a clear message. Listening to music does not simply make us smarter over night, but it does affect our mood and if we are in a good mood we tend to do better in our daily activities. As a musician and future music educator myself, I was hoping by the end of the presentation that I could confidently say that listening to music alone can enhance the cognitive power of our brains. Who wouldn’t want to be able to say that? To hear that it does not, I admit, disheartened me just a little bit. It always seems like music educators need to justify why music is important, and often those who do not think music is important demand scientific proof stating otherwise.

Rauscher’s 1993 study, which led to the “Mozart Effect”, all of a sudden gave us another reason to claim that music makes you smarter.  Although other research has led us to believe that listening to music alone cannot make us smarter, we can hold on to the fact music listening does have a powerful impact on our emotional state, which in turn has a powerful effect on our cognitive abilities. The fact that music listening can affect us in a universal way unlike anything else is important to understand for music educators and musicians.  At some point in our lives, we will all be in a position where we will have to defend this profession to others and having this research on our side I believe will help.

What I find interesting to note is that if just listening to music can affect our spatial intelligence and one’s ability on tests, then what could music training do?  This question requires more research then what was presented here by Dr. Grahn, but it is important information nonetheless, which could be very valuable to not only professional musicians but for teachers trying to convince students to take/stay in band.  In my opinion based from my experiences, I don’t think music training necessarily made me smarter but it has certainly developed certain qualities in myself such as my work ethic, my attention to detail, my presentation skills and my knowledge and appreciation for aesthetics, among others.  I would be very interested to see what research was done in this area and how it could affect my career moving forward.

Music can do a lot of things and I believe it holds a significant place in education and in health care.  As Grahn said in her presentation, it is used extensively in the rehabilitation process of dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke and is also a powerful tool for altering our mood and arousal which can only help motivate us to work.  This is all great information, and it proves that music has an important place in this world.  I am excited at what I learned about the effects of music listening, and I hope to continue this research to learn about music training and the effects that it can have on our minds.

Works Cited

Rauscher, F., Shaw, G. & Ky, K. (1993) Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 400(6747), 827-828.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Neural pathways for language in autism: the potential for music-based treatments

Source:
Wan, C. & Schlaug, G. Neural pathways for language in autism: the potential for music-based treatments. Future Neurology, 2010, 5(6), pp797-805

Summary:
In this special report, the authors present the clinical potential of a new experimental music-based therapy, termed Auditory Motor Mapping Training (AMMT). This novel therapy is considered a viable tool to facilitate expressive language in non-verbal individuals with autism, as well as in possible strengthening of the underlying neural connections.

The authors first describe the core diagnostic features of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), highlighting the language deficits and impaired communication skills, which can be persistent. Subsequently, it is explained how these deficits have been studied using structural and functional imaging and neurophysiological techniques. Studies have reported structural differences in language-related regions between individuals with autism and controls, although with some inconsistency across these investigations. Nevertheless, the authors argue that these differences could be partly attributed to the complexity of the disorder, which may have different etiologies and intrinsic heterogeneity in linguistic abilities among individuals with autism.

After describing language processing in typically developing individuals and structural abnormalities in autism, the authors emphasize the possible existence of aberrant long-range connectivity in this disorder. They outline which anatomical pathways could be affected, such as the arcuate fasciculum (AF), the extreme capsule (EmC) and the uncinate fasciculus (UF). Therefore, both the language areas (Broca and Wernicke´s regions) and the neural connections between them might be abnormal, impaired or underdeveloped. It is explained how connectivity across brain regions have been examined through functional and structural imaging techniques, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), respectively. As an example, the authors mention recent published studies using DTI tractography, which reported abnormalities in the corpus callosum and in frontal lobe tracts, such as the arcuate fasciculus (AF) in autistic children.

In addition, Wan and Schlaug present research in which music making and intensive musical training produced plastic changes in the brain (particularly, an increased number and volume of fibers of the AF). They suggest that a music-based intervention can also be used in autism, to engage and strengthen the connections between frontal and temporal regions bilaterally, and thus facilitating expressive language in nonverbal individuals.

Finally, the authors present AMMT as an innovative intervention with clinical potential in autism and characterize its three main components including singing, motor activity (using a set of tuned drums to engage both hands) and imitation.

Reflections:
The presented article by Wan and Schlaug conducted in the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Harvard University provides deeper insight into the role of music therapy in the treatment of children with autism. Several questions crossed my mind while reading this article, such as: why music therapy is not common in clinical settings and how this field can be further developed?

The potential advantage of music interventions in autism is not a new finding. Many studies have previously reported the musical strengths of the individuals with autism, such as their superior music perception abilities and enjoyment in musical activities, such as singing or playing an instrument. Furthermore, musical stimuli have been shown to activate brain regions associated with the processing of emotions, emphasizing the therapeutic potential of musical activities in this disorder. A year after publishing the aforementioned article, they published a sequel entitled “Auditory-Motor Mapping Training as an Intervention to Facilitate Speech Output in Non-Verbal Children with Autism: A Proof of Concept Study” in which they reported reliable improvements in participant´s expressive language using auditory-motor mapping training.

However, most of the studies referring to efficacy on music therapy in autism have been anecdotal reports of single cases, lacking empirical support. Recently, a Cochrane review (2014) assessed the effects of music therapy for individuals with ASD. Only 10 out of 431 studies found in this field met the inclusion criteria, as relevant randomized controlled trials (RCTs) or controlled clinical trials (CCTs). The presented results provided evidence that music therapy may assist children with ASD to improve their skills in social interaction, verbal communication, initiating behavior, and social-emotional reciprocity.

For future studies, music therapists and researchers are required to carry out empirical investigations with larger samples sizes, controlled paradigms with longer periods of observation, statistical analysis to test the significance of improvements, proper follow- up and observations outside of therapy sessions. Nevertheless, studies will still have many sources of heterogeneity (e.g. patient´s age, intensity of therapy and type of treatment approaches) and limitations.

Although some animal models have been used for understanding the basic perceptual mechanisms in music processing, these models seem to be useless when it comes to study the effectiveness of music therapy in facilitating speech output.

A more robust approach would be the use of imaging techniques to investigate the structural and functional differences of the neural network, prior and after the music therapy, as well as during some follow-up period.

In conclusion, music-based therapies in autism have been underutilized and poorly studied. More empirical research and interdisciplinary collaboration are needed to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of this field. Moreover, the development of these innovative interventions will not only bring advancement of knowledge, but will also directly benefit individuals, their families and society. 

References:
Wan C, Bazen L, Baars R, Libenson A, Lauryn Zipse, Zuk J, Norton A, Sclaug, G. “Auditory-motor mapping training as an intervention to facilitate Speech Output in non-verbal children with autism: A proof of concept study”, PLos ONE, 6, 2011, 1-7.
Geretsegger M, Elefant C, Mössler KA, Gold C. “Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder”, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2014, Issue 6. Art. No.:CD004381. DOI: 10.1002/14651858. CD004381.pub3.

Music and Language: Do they draw on similar syntactic working memory resources?

Source:
Fiveash, Anna and Kristen Pammer. “Music and Language: Do they draw on similar syntactic working memory resources?” Psychology of Music (2014), Vol. 42 (2), pp.190-209.


Summary:
Anna Fiveash and Kristen Pammer state that “the cognitive processing similarities between music and language is an emerging field of study, with research finding evidence for shared processing pathways in the brain, especially in relation to syntax.” To test this concept, the authors undertook a research experiment, hypothesizing that there was to be shared processing costs when music and language concurrently accessed Syntactic Working Memory (SWM). Meaning, they predicted that the working memory would begin to falter if exposed to two kinds of stimuli simultaneously?

They recruited sixty-one participants at the Australian National University for the experiment, in order to determine whether syntax processing in the brain is the same for both music and language. Just as the English language has rules of grammar, there are similar concepts in music that combine different elements into an overriding structure. But would the performance of SWM be different between musicians and non-musicians? For this, they had 25 participants who classified themselves as musicians and 36 who were non-musicians. The thought was that “musicians are more sensitive to speech sounds, and that there is a transfer of training between music and language,” Besson, Chobert, and Marie (2011), so this would lead to a higher level of distraction for musicians, with less attention being placed to working memory.

The experiment was designed to incorporate a visually presented word list, and/or a complex sentence, paired with three music conditions: normal; syntactic manipulation (out-of-key chord); and a control condition with an instrument manipulation. For a completely random result, the 40 sets of music were re-randomized every eight participants “to ensure the results were related to the music condition rather than the difficulty of the word or sentence.” With syntactic manipulation, they believed that it would affect the memory to a point that the list of words, or sentences would become more difficult to recount thanks to their working memory being distorted.

A typical word list included: ‘sand, bat, light, pear, mole’
A complex sentence example was: ‘The host who the contestant offended ruined the show for the audience’.

The results were as predicted. The accuracy of recall was lower when the combination of music and language syntax were accessing the Syntactic Working Memory concurrently. 


Comment/Reflections:
This is a topic that I have been intrigued with for a while, because on a personal front, at times I have found it difficult to listen to conversations when music is being played, especially if the harmonic balance is a little off. It affects both my Syntactic Working Memory, and my centre of focus. This is because the music seems to speak to me, as if it were indeed a language, thus taking my focus elsewhere. As I musician, I have also noticed how I am unable to study with music playing in the background, for I am pulled mentally in two directions. Therefore, it is quite easy to see why musicians’ accuracy was significantly affected in this experiment when charged with the task of remembering a sentence – much more so than the non-musician. So it would seem Anna Fiveash and Kristen Pammer got the answer they were looking for - that the processing mechanisms in the brain between music and language syntax are shared.

However, while I believe this to have been a good study, I feel it would have been great had it delved into the activations in the brain during the test. In the conclusion, the authors state: “while it is clear there appears to be a connection between music and language, this connection is multi-layered and is still being uncovered.” Had they left that sentence out and perhaps been able to go a step further, the experiment would be a little more complete. One thing that would have been of benefit to them would have been to complete a reading of the brain with the use of an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery), while administering the experiment. As it is understood, music shares several features/similarities with language, such as a syntax/harmony, the use of a vocabulary (words/chords and intervals), tonal properties (inflection/timbre), and a temporal clock (prosody/rhythm). Therefore, it’s not surprising that music activates the ‘language regions’ of the brain. The imaging would show that.

Also, the imaging would show how much the brain is activated while processing language and music. One would be able to notice that the major difference between the way music is processed, compared to language is that while language predominantly shows lateral activation, music processing shows bilateral activation.
  
Music and language: Do they draw on similar syntactic working memory resources? This was the original question of the study. After undertaking this experiment, the results of the authors would show that yes, they do! The research produces clear evidence of the effects to the Syntactic Working Memory, while including the comparison between musicians and non-musicians. Further to this, it is interesting to see that while musicians had the highest accuracy recall for word lists, it suffered significantly for sentences. Anna Fiveash and Kristen Pammer seem to think the better performance with words lists is because musicians have been shown to have “superior rehearsal mechanisms for verbal working memory.” But this doesn’t help when the words have been stringed together to form a sentence, because as discussed, music and language are processed together, and so the Syntactic Working Memory of the musician is significantly impaired.


Works cited:

Besson, M., Chobert, J., and Marie, C. “Transfer of training between music and speech: Common processing, attention, and memory.” Frontiers in Psychology (2011), 2, pp.1-12.

Singing Stimulates 'bodymind' Thus Enhancing Vocal Production

Rinta, Tiija, and Graham F. Welch. "Should Singing Activities Be Included in Speech and Voice Therapy for Prepubertal Children?" Journal of Voice (2008): 100-12. Print.
The King's speech. Dir. Tom Hooper. Perf. Colin Firth. Alliance Vivafilm, 2011. Film.

Summary

After the Academy Award winning movie, "The King’s Speech" was released in 2010, the topic of singing benefitting those with voice disorders became a fascinating conversation starter to the public that helped promote the fields of Speech Pathology, Neurolaryngology and Vocology. Simply put, singing stimulates areas in the right hemisphere of the brain, which would then assume the function for damaged left speech areas.  For many decades the theory has been used on people of all ages producing surprising results. Does this actually work? As "The King’s Speech" tells the story about a man, Bertie (Colin Firth), who suffered from psychological trauma causing a debilitating speech impediment, is suddenly crowned King George VI of England. Based on the true story of King George VI, this educative movie follows the Royal Monarch's quest by using singing as an activity to find his voice. There is a good amount of research on this theory and how it works. In a lot of research, it is incredibly unfortunate that speaking and singing have tended to be regarded as two completely separate sets of behaviours in clinical practices. The treatment of speech and voice disorders has focused on the client's speaking ability, as this is perceived to be the main vocal behaviour of concern. However, according to a broader voice-science perspective, given that the same vocal structure is used for speaking and singing, it may be possible to include singing in speech and voice therapy. Researchers like Tiija Rinta and Graham F. Welch explain in their "Should Singing Activities Be Included in Speech and Voice Therapy for Prepubertal Children?" a theoretical framework is proposed that indicates possible benefits from the inclusion of singing in such therapeutic settings. Although Rinta and Welch focuses this paper on children, the framework has said to be adaptable for adult clients as well. Like the true story of King George VI and many other literature reviews, this article demonstrates theoretically why singing activities can potentially be exploited in the treatment of prepubertal individuals suffering from speech and voice disorders.

The model Rinta and Welch presents demonstrates how the different factors that influence our vocal functioning and vocal products interact and influence each other. All the intra- and interindividual factors influence one another and shape the individual’s singing and speaking competencies. The individual’s speaking and singing competencies then influence the quality of his or her vocal output, both in speaking and singing, similar to how King George VI conquered his impediment.

Their theory demonstrates that a complex combination of human physiology and its relations to the psychological side indicate that singing activities may influence the entire 'bodymind'. They explain that  neural networks connect all the various physiological and anatomical elements of the body to each other which that are used for processing sound, also connect the physiological and psychological sides of the individual to each other, forming a connection that Rinta and Welch identified as the ‘bodymind’. According to Rinta and Welch’s research, our bodies and minds are interconnected via neuropeptides and its receptors. Therefore, they argue that it is reasonable to talk about the bodymind rather than a separate body and a separate mind. An example is used by using neuropeptide connections throughout the body that act as the processing of emotions. Auditory stimuli are also refined by the connections and is recorded in the neurological networks by an evoked emotional response. Once these activities are used in the form of a holistic approach in a therapeutic or educational setting by focusing on the complex makeup of humans, Rinta and Welch say that vocal behaviors may be enhanced. However, there are considerable gaps found in the literature that concerns children’s vocal functioning, vocal qualities, and therapeutic methods for speech and voice disorder treatment.


Reflection

Voice is an integral part of our being and living. Either in speaking or singing, using voice is a way of allowing one's thoughts, feelings, and emotions to be expressed and communicated. I could not help but appreciate and think about "The King’s Speech" while reading this article. Yes, Rinta and Welch focused their paper around children, but since this 2008 article, more research has proven that the theory works on adults as well. As a singing teacher and singing health researcher, I strongly believe that singing stimulates positive well-being, thus enhancing health benefits. I believe that in order to reach a common ground or language with clients who have a speech disorder, music is always there to save the day. Music plays a large role in the history and culture of many societies, often formally incorporated into various life events. In particular, singing is an extremely prevalent form of music making in many cultures. Ethnomusicologists have postulated that the origin of human polyphonic singing, or group singing with multiple pitches sounding simultaneously, may be intimately related to the evolution of human language, speech, and intelligence. Perhaps because of this relationship, nearly every culture in the world has exhibited some tradition of singing.


Neurologically, I personally believe that the singing mechanism has a fascinating function. During the production of healthy singing, various motor skills are enhanced and aid in the neurological function within the brain to the larynx. I teach singing to a group of children who all are diagnosed with a type of vocal paralysis. I find that through the use of proper alignment, breathing skills, artistry, diverse facial expressions and musicality; motor skills are naturally developed and therefore aid neurological function to the larynx (Superior Laryngeal Nerve and Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve). Rinta and Welch divulged into a topic that may seem like new research because their theory has not been frequently tested. However, I appreciate the theory because it brings a holistic approach to clinical practices that embodies a healthier sense of well-being, or what they describe as 'bodymind'. Let’s face it, wouldn’t we all like to experience positive well-being in clinical practices?

Music Practice and Neural Executive Functions

Zuk, Jennifer, Christopher Benjamin, Arnold Kenyon, and Nadine Gaab. 2014. “Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians.” Edited by Amanda Bruce. PLoS ONE 9 (6): e99868. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099868. www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0099868

Summary:
In a recent study, Jennifer Zuk et al. (2014) examined the effects of musical practice on neural executive functioning in children and adults. Executive functions are a group of cognitive processes that support self-regulating behavior and play an important role in working memory, problem solving, and goal-driven behaviors. Additionally, executive functions are important for dynamic activities that require frequent changes in task attentiveness.

Based on numerous previous studies that have shown links between musical training and strong general cognitive skills, the researchers hypothesized that there might be a relationship between music practice and executive function. Although other studies have examined the relationship between musical training and executive function, Zuk et al. note that these studies have produced mixed findings. The inconsistency across these studies is attributed to the lack of carefully selecting control groups of people without any musical training. Other confounding factors are also to blame, such as the socioeconomic divide between musicians and non-musicians.

In an effort to mitigate the inconsistencies of earlier music and executive function studies, the research team carefully selected adults (15 musicians/15 non-musicians) with an average age of 24 years old, and children (15 musically trained/12 non-trained) with an average age of 10 years old. Close attention was paid to physicality, musical training, and socioeconomic demographics, including the current career activities of the adults and parental education among the children. Baseline cognitive abilities were established through a battery of executive function tests including “trail-making,” verbal and design fluency, color-word inference, and coding symbols to numbers.

Among both adults and children, behavioral tests showed that the musically trained scored higher on verbal fluency and coding. Beyond these behavioral tests, the research group (based out of Boston Children’s Hospital) used fMRI to study brain activation in the children in the study. They found heightened activity in the supplementary motor area and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex in children who practiced music. Overall, the findings suggest that there is some correlation between musical practice and the executive functions that are important for learning skills. Nevertheless, research of this kind is troubled by many confounding factors and many open questions linger.

Reflections:
Finding solid evidence that listening to or practicing music might improve cognitive abilities and intelligence has proven difficult. At the same time, empirical proof that links musical training with outcomes of improved intelligence and learning ability is highly desirable for music researchers and music educators. Increasing reliance on standardized testing as a measure of student performance is causing schools to cut arts programs and promote a more reading- and math-heavy curriculum. Zuk et al. argue that these tactics might actually cause other cognitive deficiencies in students.

This growing body of research lays an important foundation for the claim that music can improve cognitive function in both children and adults. However, the relationship between music practice, executive function, academic success and skills, and intelligence is exceedingly complex. Studies with larger sample sizes over longer periods of time are likely to yield more conclusive results. For instance, a study that followed a non-musical group and a musical group in the same school over a period of several years or one that followed adults from a shared demographic over a similar time frame might reveal interesting results. I wonder if there is an optimum amount of music education. Do the payoffs plateau after a certain period? Or is there some amount of daily musical practice that provides optimal results for executive function?

In addition, I would like to see studies that go beyond the relationship between music practice and cognition (or executive function) and instead consider linking the effects of executive function to general wellness. The focus on executive function is a powerful argument for supporting music education programs because it justifies music education by appealing to characteristics that are highly valued in modern society – self-control, cognition, rational thought, and logic. However, I feel that the arts should be supported for all of their benefits, not only the ones that justify music practice to bureaucrats and education administrators.