Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Implications of Music and Brain Research: for the Common People

Hodges, Donald A. 2000. “Implications of Music and Brain Research.” Music Educators Journal. 87(2). 17-22.

This article actually serves as an introductory article to a series of articles, all of which discuss important aspects of neuromusical investigation currently under research. To music educators, the author acknowledges that current research in this field is difficult. This is due mainly to the fact that most recent discoveries involving music and brain is presented in one of two ways. Either information is presented in scientific journals and is too technical for a non-scientist to read and understand, or, it is “watered down” and the actual facts become obscured. In the remainder of the introduction, the author presents the titles and a brief summary of all the articles in the series.

Four articles are briefly mentioned. The first, by Donna Brink Fox, is titled “Music and the Baby’s Brain: Early Music Experiences” and it discusses literature on infant and early childhood music with respect to brain development. Many adult-like responses to music are already apparent in infants. “EEG Studies with Young Children”, the next article, examines brain activity in preschool and elementary school children. John Flohr, Dan Miller, and Roger deBeus explain electroencephalogram (EEG) technicques and how they have been applied to the study of musical behaviours in children. Steven Demorest and Steven Morrison discuss a current popular topic in their article “Does Music Make You Smarter?” Exposing children to music perhaps does increase their brain power; the authors present a balanced view to this controversial issue. The final article is “A Virtual Panel of Expert Researchers” in which four senior researches share important ideas for music educators.

The second part of the article gives an overview of some current trends in music and brain research. The first is based on the premise that the human brain has the ability to respond to and participate in music. For instance, there are those who think that being musical or a musician means to be like Mozart, for instance; rather, we all respond in our own way to music of the environment. To quote the author: “Music then, is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be a human being.”

The second premise is that the music brain, specifically, operates at birth and persists throughout life. In a way, this seems obvious. But the article gives scientific evidence that a baby responds to music while even in the womb. Research is also being carried out with aging nuns. So far, evidence is proving that the more education (especially in music or languages) that one has in childhood, the less likely they are to be debilitated by some form of cognitive dementia in their older age.

Thirdly, it has been proved through brain imaging data that the primary auditory cortex in the left hemisphere of musically trained subjects is larger than in those of untrained subjects. Further, for those with absolute pitch or who began lessons before age seven, the difference was even greater.

The musical brain consists of complex neural networks involving widely distributed, but locally specialized regions of the brain. These include cognitive components, affective components, and motor components; the author contends that the literature on amusia gives further evidence of modularity.

Lastly, the musical brain is highly resilient, persisting in individuals regardless of the degree of disability or illness. Any music therapist would testify to this. For example, individual with Williams Syndrome are cognitively impaired, with average IQs of 65 – 70, yet they often have remarkable musical abilities.

This article seemed less specialized and specific than many others I have read dealing with similar topics. The article discussed current research being hard to access for many musicians on account of its being “polarized”. I had to agree with the statement. I had previously accessed a few medical databases when researching for my essay and found them to be almost too specific and focused to be relevant. That is, if I was even able to understand what they were talking about!

I also enjoyed reading about Donna Brink’s article, regarding early music experiences. On a personal level, I entirely agree with it. My youngest sister has five older siblings (including myself) who have played/play the piano seriously. Three of us did undergrad degrees in performance. From the time she was one or two years old, I remember Radine sitting in her playpen bouncing up and down in time to music being played. She “played” the piano before she could walk, and began piano lessons when she was very young. By age three, she had performed in front of audiences from memory. My childhood musical education was different than Radine’s in this way. Radine has just turned 11, and still loves to sing and play both piano and violin.

With respect to the fact that early musical development perhaps enlarges the upper primary cortex more than in non-musically trained individuals, I do agree that much caution should be taken. The article points out that any individual who is highly specialized in a certain area will likely have an enlarged cortex corresponding to that area. It does not simply apply to musicians. The author gives the example of the difference between a high level mathematician, and one who can barely add or subtract. This would also apply to a highly trained athlete in a specific sport, for instance.

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