Sunday, December 7, 2008

Music acquisition: effects of enculturation and formal training on development

Sharon Dutton

Hannon, Erin E., and Trainor, Laurel J. (2007) “Music acquisition: effects of
enculturation and formal training on development”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, November 2007, Vol. 11, No. 11, pp 466-472

In this short article, Hannon and Trainor have outlined a process for musical acquisition, beginning with the brain’s biological, “universal” predispositions, and proceeding from there to enculturation, wherein, through listening to the every-day music of one’s surroundings, the brain develops culture specific patterns for understanding and interpreting music. The authors differentiate between propensities for musical development that are universal, (natural, or biological), and those that are developed via enculturation, enculturation being defined as, “the process by which individuals acquire culture-specific knowledge about the structure of the music they are exposed to through everyday experiences, such as listening to the radio, singing and dancing” (p 466). They identify the process of formal music lessons as a means of music acquisition through which one attains a high level of performance ability and whereby one’s cortical tissue matter increases as well as the brain’s attention and executive functioning.

Universal musical abilities or discriminations include:
> identifying sounds with spectral (pitch) and temporal (rhythm) patterning (p466)
> early sensitivity for consonant over dissonant intervals (p 466)
> inference of a regular beat (p 468)
> metrical interpretation based on movement (p 470)

The authors explain, “sensitivity to universal aspects of spectral and temporal structure emerges early in development, whereas system-specific responses emerge later as a result of enculturation” (p 466).

They suggest that a preference for consonance over dissonance is not only universal, but also unique to humans, and that this preference then develops into culture-specific knowledge of scales and harmonies through enculturation. This preference, they claim, “probably arises from properties of the basilar membrane and auditory nerve, in conjunction with general exposure to spectrotemporally structured sounds” (p 470). As for rhythm, which, they claim, “is more fundamental to music than pitch” (p 468), their findings are that our sense of rhythm is based “in biological rhythms, such as walking and the heartbeat”, and that “enculturation to rhythm and meter begins during infancy” via exposure to music that is commonly heard (p 468). Enculturation of metrical structure, they argue, results from biological connections between movement and auditory areas of the brain.

The authors discuss the effect, (if any), of music lessons on the developing brain, and note, “recent work also suggests that explicit musical instruction, in addition to enhancing music-specific knowledge, substantially affects development of basic behaviors and neural processes in a range of domains and modalities” (p 466). The authors refer to a study of 6-year old children, which found that “consistent gains were made across all four indexes of the IQ, including verbal comprehension, perceptual organization, freedom from distractibility, and processing speed” (p 470). They conclude that a positive developmental correlation found between formal music training and brain development “might occur because music lessons train attentional and executive functioning, which benefits almost all cognitive tasks” (p 470).

The authors explain that “plasticity is affected by … synaptic proliferation and pruning, myelination, and neurofilament and neurotransmitter levels, each of which has its own developmental trajectory” and that “plasticity is also reduced with learning as neural networks settle into more stable states” (p 470). Plasticity is defined by Gruhn and Rauscher (2008) as, “the potential of neuronal networks to adapt to environmental conditions and perceived stimuli in order to accomplish particular tasks in the most economic and appropriate way” (p 293).


The authors make repeated reference to connections between movement and auditory areas of the brain, and claim that these connections, “in conjunction with everyday correlated multisensory experiences with sound and movement” (p 470), affect the ways that we develop encultured knowledge, in particular our sense of rhythm. They claim that rhythm or “temporal structure is arguably more fundamental to music than pitch structure, because it forms the basis for virtually all social musical behaviors, such as dancing and ensemble performance” (p 468).

While music teachers, especially Dalcroze teachers have known for years that teaching music through movement enhances perception exponentially, and that our sense of music is deeply connected to our sense of movement, neuroscience is relatively new, and the discovery of connections in the brain between music and movement is a significant advancement. The authors credit the vestibular system with interaction between movement and music acquisition. This hypothesis – that people of all ages are better able to understand the metrical organization of music through stimulation of the vestibular system – is of particular interest to teachers who implement the Dalcroze approach to music education, which is based on developing musical sensitivity through movement. Dalcroze discovered, almost exactly 100 years ago, that teaching meter (teaching all aspects of music) through movement increases the likelihood of those students to play their instruments in a rhythmic and musical fashion. The authors note that several recent research studies have demonstrated that our sense of rhythm might be based in biological rhythms, such a walking and the heartbeat, (and nearly every Dalcroze teacher I’ve studied with starts his / her class with a comfortable walk).

Musicologists have lately decried the common reference to music as the “universal language”. Hannon and Trainor re-introduced the concept of music having universal commonalities, not in specific ways in which we are moved by music, but rather, with four preferences or abilities that are common to all people as they develop their encultured sense and knowledge about music (see above).

Gruhn, Wilfried and Rauscher, Frances H. (2008) Neurosciences in Music Pedagogy, Nova Science Publishers, Inc. (2nd printing)

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