Monday, November 14, 2011

Music, The Brain and Education – Warren Duffer James, Montessori Life 17 no3 Summ 2005


Music is no longer bound by the limits of it source. The increase in recording technology has increased the amount of music a person can hear but has de-emphasized the needs for people to actively make music together. Making music together was an important activity in the past because your only option for listening was to play yourself or go to a concert, which was not always available. By making music as an activity, the line between performer and audience is blurred.

When performers play together, their brains process the same information at the same time. So essentially they are functioning as one brain while they are working together. Playing music by oneself is also beneficial as it activates different parts of the brain at the same time. Performing causes the brain to coordinate analysis of patterns with physical movement.

Fewer people are participating in acoustical performances but with the increased portability of electronic music players they are actually listening more. Because our society has changed the value of music from performance to electronic, should we re-evaluate how we teach music in schools?

First we need to identify music as organize sound. Then we need to accept that no one type of music is intrinsically better than another. Music is influenced on a cultural level and based on familiarity within a given style. Children however, are not predisposed to be able to understand one style of music over another. They can distinguish between many variances within our Western 12-tone scale, but it is only through exposure are that they are entrained to listen within our parameters. This repetition is of sounds is how the child’s brain learns to process music.

Music is brought into the classroom for a number of reasons. The more traditional reason is to train young people to become proficient performers, which is usually done by a specialist teacher in the music classroom. Another reason is the use of music to assist the brain in acquiring new information. In this case music is piped into the non-music classes in the hopes of increasing brain development. Finally, music can be brought into the classroom as a diversion or for entertainment factor.

Music engages the brain on multiple levels, especially training the brain to process information spatially. In order to support the statement that music can “make you smarter” we need to acknowledge that for any type of brain development it needs to be the “right” music for the “right” person. So what causes one child’s brain to light up will have no effect on another. We traditionally reference Mozart in affecting intelligence but in reality that is the implementation of our Western cannon.

When using music in the classroom there needs to be an emphasis on listening over hearing in context. Music played in the background just becomes noise that the brain will eventually filter out. However music illicits movement so active listening could also include a movement component. It is important to encourage movement and singing outside of the music class to create an active listening experience in which all can participate.

Active music making must be a part of our daily lives if it is to have any long-term effects. It needs to be inclusive of all students, genres, and other subjects. Students should be exposed to live performances as often as possible and encouraged to participate in music regardless of ability or performance anxiety. Music as background noise is not as effective as when students engage in singing and moving with the music. Teachers do not need to be leaders of music making, as the children should be interacting with the music on their own. Music in schools is not meant for a select group of people nor is it meant to “make children smarter”. It is meant to be enjoyed as a social activity and promote cohesion in the classroom.


I see the influence of electronic music in my own classroom. When I ask my students how they listen to music their top answers are through personal music players and headphones. There is a disconnect from the social aspect of music making and as a result music becomes something which is only personal. When they get the opportunity to play as a group in an ensemble, a lot of them enjoy the group aspect of music making over the actual music they are playing. In this case we are not training elite musicians, rather we are creating a space where musical experience can occur.

I think an engaging teacher changes their learning goals based on the students readiness for the lesson. Sometimes I push my students to become proficient performers, but other times our goal is to have fun while playing an instrument. I do not think it is as segmented as the article makes it out to be. I do agree however, that students must be actively engaged in music and that we need to model this behaviour for them. If their brains are used to music being a constant background noise, we need to re-train them in a sense to actively listen and analyze music in the classroom.

I like how the article made the connection between music making and movement for brain development. I’ve noticed with my own students that when we clap, sing, and dance to the beat, they have a greater understanding of more complex rhythms. When they “feel” the groove we become better players collectively. I find the connection between movement, music, and brain activity interesting, and am going to try and incorporate it on a more social level in my classroom.


Chairat said...

The social nature of music making cannot be emphasized enough. In particular, I was struck by the following passage: “When performers play together, their brains process the same information at the same time. So essentially they are functioning as one brain while they are working together.”

Having played with the same violinist for three years, I can relate to this very well. When we first played together, I never quite knew what she was going to do and I always felt the need to watch her cues carefully to make sure that we were actually playing together. As time went by, however, it was as if I became “psychic”. I would know exactly what my violinist was going to do before she did it and there was less need for me to conscientiously look at her cues.

These “psychic” moments are absolutely wonderful. And when they happen in a concert, I believe that the audience can feel them. When there is true interaction between the performers on the stage, it is as if an interesting conversation is taking place and the audience cannot help but become engaged.

And while music may have become much more of a personal experience, rather than a social one, I agree with you that students should be taught to actively listen. Moving and singing along to music are certainly great ways of accomplishing this, but I suggest that students should also take some time to reflect on the music that they listen to; to start raising all sorts of questions about it, to use their imagination to make up stories for it, to develop a multi-layered relationship with it.

I strongly feel that it is crucial for students to realize that there will always be questions to be asked about the music that they make and listen to and that they need to initiate this process of discovery. By continually posing questions and coming up with personally relevant answers that can be shared with others, during music making, for instance, I think they will gradually learn to become more refined as musicians and listeners, more sensitive as human beings.

Renée Barabash said...

In addition to the social disconnect when listening to music alone rather that making the music, I have found a growing number of my students are negatively affected by listening almost exclusively to recorded music. Live music has an authentic quality that is lost when music is recorded in a studio. Further, mainstream studio recordings are remastered; sound engineers work with the musicians and producers in order to produce a "product" which best sells the performer's ability.

I have found that the overly perfect recordings readily available to children of late actually affects their self-esteem. For instance, a young boy working on a Bach suite looked up recordings by master pianists. Instead of being inspired, he returned to me feeling discouraged by the performers' abilities. His fear of failure in this regard kept him from learning and exploring what he was capable of.

I am glad that music is entering the classroom more and more, so that children can become socially involved, but also so that they can understand that making mistakes is part of the process. Under the guidance of a sensitive teacher, music making becomes a useful tool not only for learning at the given moment, but also a model for future learning.

Elizabeth said...

I completely agree with the passage: "When using music in the classroom there needs to be an emphasis on listening over hearing in context."

I have seen such positive effects when active listening is incorporated in the music classroom. I think about when I bring classical music to my Elementary aged students. If I were to just play a piece of music, it would not have any meaning as the students have no way of connecting with the elements in that piece. On the other hand, when we break the structure of the piece in a story format, for example, while creating movements to distinguish each section or a specific element in the piece, the potential for connection is there. Does this mean that everyone will enjoy the piece? Not necessarily, but that active musical experience becomes familiar to them. So, if their homeroom teacher were to play that same classical piece while they were working, immediately, the students are reminded of their previous experience in the music classroom.

Now, as was mentioned, we need to also see if this experience can happen in different contexts outside the classroom.