Monday, September 27, 2010

Children Creating Music in Cyber-world: Is It Enough To Make Them Smarter?


Carter, Christine. “How Learning Music Can Enhance Kids’ Brain Development”. The Huffington Post. (23 September 2010). Retrieved from

TheToonsTunes website
    The author believes that music training in early childhood enhances the brain to pick out specific sounds patterns, helps them to develop language skills, and leads to the social and emotional intelligence behind the speech, which is proven by many researches. As a mom and a professional parenting advisor, she was intrigued by the benefit of musical training and tried to sign her daughter up for music lessons. While questioning the sufficient amount of training needed for brain development, she found the suggestion made by Nina Kraus, a neurobiologist and a sociologist at Northwestern, to provide at least 20 minutes of musical training per day. However, providing sufficient money and time for her daughter’s music lessons as suggested was impractical. While looking for alternatives, she got introduced to a website called ToonsTunes, where children can create music online regardless of previous musical knowledge. She is optimistic that the website will work as a great alternative to formal music education for her children because it is engaging, practical, and more importantly, the process is self-driven.


    It is impressive that many parents are aware that music enhances kids’ brain development, and interested in providing some kind of musical training for children. However, the term ‘musical training’ is vague. Can any type of exposure to music, such as listening, playing random notes on instruments, get private lessons, or playing ToonsTunes website help children’s brain development? Is one way better than another?
According to the dictionary definition, the word ‘training’ means “the education, instruction, or discipline of a person or thing that is being trained”, which implies that there is a teacher-learner relationship involved. Probably this definition of ‘training’ is why some parents feel obliged to provide some kind of music ‘lessons’ for their children, and therefore musical training could be seen as it is only for the privileged ones. However, parents should not feel guilty or anxious about not able to provide private music lessons since ‘experiencing’ music is what develops the brain to pick up certain sound patterns and interpret, which leads to language and emotional intelligence; more exposure to variety of musical activity is what matters. Private lessons might be the best way if a child wants to develop an expertise on a specific instrument, but it is not the one and only way. Some parents might say that still there is a need for someone with expertise in order to improve, or some type of ensemble experience is necessary for social development, and here is when the school music program plays its role; under the premise that the school music teacher is good, parents should not worry about the ‘training’ part.

Creating music in ToonsTunes
I investigated the ToonsTunes website. Targeted for young children, this website has incorporated popular music and entertainment. You get to have your own avatar to wonder around the cyber-world, buy instruments and clothes, meet other avatars and chat, create music, save, load, or share your own music with others. It was quite thrilling to create an enjoyable short rock music piece within few clicks; you just have to choose among the variety of premade short phrases and mix them, and of course it is designed that any kind of combination will sound pleasant. ToonsTunes is certainly an innovative way to explore, create, and enjoy music in a self-driven way. Although it cannot be said that ToonsTunes is the one complete way to develop children’s brain thoroughly, it is worthy to be added to your children’s musical activities. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jedi Mind Control In The Palm Of Your Hand

Ubrain App. (available on the iTunes Store)

Overview: Ubrain recently launched a new app for i-phone, i-pad, and android that uses binaural beats to influence brain activity.  It comes with a fun interface that prompts the user to describe what they are doing, how they are feeling, and how they would like to feel.  The app then suggests a selection of binaural beat patterns and provides listening instructions for each one.  Once the beat pattern is selected, Ubrain allows the user to make a playlist of music, and mix the binaural beats into the background.

Binaural beats are caused by playing one tone in either ear and tuning the pitches in such a way that the listener perceives beats.   Musicians often use the same phenomenon of beats to tell if their instruments are in tune.  When two tones' frequencies are close to one another, our brains perceive a kind of interference pattern caused by the relative proximity of the peaks of each wave.  The closer the two pitches are together, the slower the beat pattern.  A violinist will tune one string to another until the beats disappear.  In the context of Ubrain, beats allow the listener to perceive frequency patterns much lower than the limits of the human ear.

Ubrain's resident psychologist Brigitte Forgeot's post-graduate dissertation provides research on how brain waves caused by binaural beats effects mood.  Ubrain's website also provides a basic overview of her findings.  According to Forgeot, binaural beats help the cortex generate brain waves and induce varying states of alertness.  For example if the user is stressed, Ubrain will produce slow Alpha-frequency beats which are associated with relaxation.  Or, if the user is feeling lazy, Ubrain will produce Beta-frequency beats associated with concentration. 

Since the separation of sound is very important, Ubrain only works when listening on headphones. 

Reflection: If it really does work, then Ubrain is an amazing tool.  Since purchasing the app for my ipod touch, I have tried out the binaural beat tracks Wake Up, Relax, Einstein, and Focus.  I'm not quite convinced that the tracks actually work.  The problem is, the descriptions of what the tracks are supposed to do are so clear, I'm not sure if I'm just imagining a difference.  I feel like I can concentrate on a task better when I am listening to Focus, but maybe it's just a placebo effect.  My other concern is that the app is designed to mix the binaural beats into the background of music from my own collection.  When I tried this, I could hear the binaural tones causing beats with some of the instruments in my music.  Additionally, I find having music on while trying to read or relax distracting.  So, I created a 30min silent track and mixed that with the binaural beat track so that was hearing only the tones produced by Ubrain.  I found this approach to be the most effective.

I am intrigued by this app and I am going to continue experimenting with it over the next few weeks.  Ubrain and other binaural beat treatments could have interesting applications for A.D.H.D. patients or people suffering from depression.   The Ubrain website mentions medical applications briefly, but it would be interesting to read Brigitte Forgeot's study to get more information. Unfortunately, it is written in French and my French is ne pas bon (quelle dommage!)  Perhaps one of my classmate can take it on in a future blog.  Forgeot's paper can be found at