Musical training, cultural familiarity and brain activity.
This is a report on an interesting research study conducted by S. Morrison and S. Demorest of the University of Washington’s School of Music. The purpose of the study was to determine what role cultural familiarity plays and whether it affects brain activity when people are exposed to music of different culture. Additionally it sought to compare the results with the brain responses when it exposed to familiar and foreign language, Cantonese in this study. A group of six professionally trained American musicians who played the violin or viola participated in the study, while control subjects were six individuals with little musical training (less than one year of private music instruction, and little experience in participating in an instrumental or choral ensemble). For all participants English was the mother tongue and they had no Cantonese language skills. In this study, the researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Brain scans were made while each participant listened to six short musical excerpts (about thirty seconds each). Three excerpts were taken from sonata for recorder by Scarlatti, and three from a traditional Cantonese song. Then the participants listened to six speech examples, three in English and three in Cantonese. Afterward, the participants took a recognition test, which consisted of the listening to several 2-to3 second musical and speech selections, half of which they heard previously during the experiment, and another half that they did not heard. They were asked if they heard each excerpts earlier and how confident they were of their answers. The findings were interesting. All participants demonstrated significant brain activity while listening to the classical and traditional musical selections. However, the researchers found considerable differences based on musical training. The trained musicians showed much greater brain activity, and larger regions of their brains were involved when listening to both types of music. The author of the article observes that these findings demonstrate that formal musical training influences patterns of brain activity in response to culturally familiar and unfamiliar music. In response to English and Cantonese speech, brain activity was similar among all participants. Remarkably, while similar brain activity patterns were demonstrated by both groups when listening to different types of music, the participants from both groups were significantly more successful in identifying the classical music selections. Surprisingly, trained musicians were more confident of their responses to classical music than to the traditional music. And, predictably, all participants demonstrated much greater success in recognizing English speech excerpts, rather than Cantonese.
One of the authors of the study notices, “Music is not so much a universally understood language as it is a universally understandable language”. I think this observation is particularly important in the context of a contemporary music education. However, reading the report I could not help wondering how music education can benefit from this research study. Music educators need to deal with a huge variety of opinions and beliefs about music and music training and learning, brought about by people from different cultures. While music (and music learning) exists in every society, people interpret it differently, using the rules, they previously learned, and their interpretation may be culturally inappropriate in a different socio-cultural context. As the author observes, “Everyone might be dealing with the music in a different way, depending on their culture”. The study’s findings demonstrate clearly that formal musical training has an effect on brain activity when listening to a greater variety of music, rather than listening to only culturally familiar or well known. But, while music theorists and scholars are talking so much about multiculturalism in music education, it appears that many music educators tend to oversimplify and generalize when it comes to multicultural music. To illustrate this, I will give just one example from my own practice. Last year, one of the students in instrumental class, (where I am a TA), selected a Russian folk song for his band conducting session. He got a CD with a couple of Russian folk songs for the band to listen to before the rehearsal. However, something did not work out with the CD player, so eventually the guy gave up, saying “Alright, you guys all know what Russian music is about”. There is no doubt that due to his professional training in music, his brain would have demonstrated intensive activity while listening to the culturally unfamiliar music, however, does this make him more culturally responsive? It is important that we understand the ways our brain responds to a variety of music around us. Although Rauscher and Gruhn maintain, “Neuroscientific data cannot provide educators with concrete rules and prescriptions for learning” (Neurosciences in music pedagogy, 2007) these data should be taken into consideration when designing a more inclusive and culturally sensitive curriculum.