Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Musical training, cultural familiarity and brain activity.

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.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A brief discussion of music as an educational tool.

Ward, David. “Aesthetic Education, Therapy, and Children with Special Needs.” In Music Therapy and Music Education for the Handicapped, edited by Rosalie Rebollo Pratt, 112-124. St. Louis: MMB Music, Inc., 1993.


This article begins by discussing the sensory development of very young children. The author, David Ward, writes about the very early synthesis of sensations, such as ear/eye coordination (seen in children as young as 2-3 weeks old) and hand/eye coordination (seen in children as young as 6-7 months old). He then goes on to describe perception, where a human mind registers and makes sense of sensations, versus conception, where a human makes inferences, judgments, and assumptions (cognitive “leaps”) based on previous experiences and knowledge. The concept is described as the beginning of abstract, symbolic thought, and can be seen in infants as young as 18 months.

The author then goes on to describe “aesthetic knowledge,” mostly discussing the idea of representation in the arts (for example, painting, mime, music, story). This mental process is not dependent on IQ, and so is a very good tool for teaching, and reaching, children with severe learning disabilities. Also, Ward describes the possibility of “transcendent” thought through representation in the arts, such as an arrangement of lines “becoming” a face, or a piece of music sounding “sad.”

As far as educating children, Ward then goes on to describe some different ways to reach out to children with learning disabilities by utilizing the arts. He talks about how many special needs children have sensory weaknesses, but how many art forms draw on more than one sense at a time and so can be used in working with the children. For example, a piece of music can sound “bright,” or “appear” to rise and fall, combining aural with visual senses, and thus can be used to help children who have trouble with the aural aspects of cognition. Another good example is using music notation, gesture, and/or mime to reach out to hearing-impaired children. When working in this way, the children are encouraged to make objective and subjective judgments, which have no “right” or “wrong,” and can be used to build self-confidence.

Ward then provides some specific examples of this philosophy in use, such as improvisation work with children who suffer from cerebral palsy and have difficulty with coordination, so much so that they cannot coordinate music notation with music production. The improvisations provide an outlet for the children, and allow them to participate in a musical “community,” while making sounds that are never wrong, and simultaneously helping them to understand musical structure (such as AB, question and answer, or ABACA, rondo form). The musical form is used as a way to give structure to the improvisation.

Using art forms such as music, special needs children can learn valuable lessons through imitation, creation, and representation. And music is so structured that it naturally lends itself as a useful medium for children who need extra structure in their education. Also, as discussed, educating through the arts provides many opportunities for different approaches (using visual metaphors to represent sounds, etc.), thus helping an educator reach out to children with certain sensory weaknesses and strengths.

The end goal of all this work is to help children coordinate their senses (synthesis of the senses), and develop the means for abstract and transcendent thought through use of art forms such as music.

My Response:

Recently, I’ve been reading about the Orff music instruction method, which involves a lot of low-stress improvisations to help children develop a “spoken” musical language before delving into the written musical language. Reading about some of the exercises that Ward describes, such as music improvisation, and the “elemental” parts of music (dynamics, form, consonance/dissonance, articulations, etc.), I would think that the Orff method would be a good way to reach out to children with disabilities. The medium of music as detailed by Orff provides a clearly-defined structure, but one in which there is much room for creativity and spontaneity. And Orff uses a lot of pentatonic scales for improvisation, as there are few dissonances in these scales. I think that a lot of children who have difficulty with music production (such as children who have trouble singing due to a lack of language production skills) would benefit immensely from being allowed to use pitched percussion instruments in a creative setting, especially one where there are no “right” and “wrong” sounds.

I am currently volunteering at an elementary school in Toronto, and I work with a music teacher who teaches a special needs class made up of severely disabled children. The children respond amazingly to music; I have witnessed this myself. The teacher sings and dances, getting the children to sing and dance along, and I can see how the music helps their physical coordination. Further, when I get to work with the children, I often end up clapping with them while the teacher sings and plays the guitar. I have noticed that a lot of children who don’t participate in the singing love the clapping, and feel as if they are a part of the music-making simply through this bodily percussion motion. I’ve seen the delight in the faces of these children as they come to understand the rhythmic fundamentals of the music that once was so foreign to them. So this is a great example of using different approaches to the same musical instruction, and also a great example of how one medium can help educate in a whole different area (i.e. the musical instruction used to help physical coordination).

Finally, I am teaching a recorder class to a learning-disabled class of grade 4-6 students. I find that using metaphors in combination with music can actually help the children to understand the music. For example, when we play a “piece,” getting the children to add a title, and words, to go along with the notes helps them to understand musical phrasing. I think that music naturally lends itself to other art forms, such as poetry, and being able to utilize this while teaching music can help instruction in other areas.

What I am trying to say is that music is an amazing social phenomenon (in the words of Dr. Lee Bartel, a “functional social phenomenon”) as well as a great teaching tool. Music can bolster the atmosphere of community and togetherness in a classroom, and can greatly improve the self-confidence of participants, if taught correctly. I hope that more teachers come to realize this, and that the cuts in funding to the arts in schools and in society will stop. Schools need music, and need music instructors who understand the principles of music, so that every student can participate in the arts, and learn abstract thought through representation.