Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Can Neuroscience Help Us Do a Better Job of Teaching Music?

Hodges, D. (2010). Can Neuroscience Help Us Do a Better Job of Teaching Music? General Music Today, 23(2), 2-12.

This article looks at how music education can move beyond the beginning stages of applying neuroscientific findings. Hodges illustrates a 3-stage basic model of the neuroscience learning cycle: Sense, Integrate, and Act which incorporates concepts such as active learning, activation of reward centers, pattern-detecting brain, plasticity, neural pruning, multisensory learning, and memory.

When engaged in a musical activity, ‘Sense’, a component of the proposed learning cycle model, involves “raw auditory, visual, and tactile sensory information” (Hodges, 2010) where we cannot yet make any sense of it. The “Integrate” component then brings meaning to the information while the “Action” component responds to this information that has been transformed into a meaningful musical experience. Sometimes, however, “Action” comes first through initiated learning, where students discover concepts through their own actions.

A closer look at some of the elements in the learning cycle:

Active Rather Than Passive Learning: During this process, audiomotor networks and motor networks are active. Brain imaging studies show that even in the absence of overt behaviours, these motor systems are active.

Learning Activates Reward Centers: Learning activates areas in the reward system pathways which release hormones (serotonin and dopamine) while also monitoring autonomic and cognitive processes.

Neural Pruning: This "primary mechanism of plasticity" comes into play when learning music from a different culture. On one hand, if the synapses are not utilized they are “pruned away;”on the other hand, active engagement, repetition, and reinforcement can equally strengthen these neural connections. So, just as children may grow up learning two languages at home, the same needs to happen in the music classroom where students are developing sensitivities to different styles so that the 'pruning" effect is less of an issue.

Learning is Multi-sensory: Though each sensory organ has its own main zone (e.g., vision –occipital region), convergence zones also exist where information from the different senses are integrated.

A Structure for Learning:

Hodges illustrates how Bloom’s framework for learning developed years ago is integrated with the learning cycle presented at the beginning of the article: Concrete experience (sensory cortex-->parietal lobes), Reflective observation (Back integrative cortex-->temporal lobes), Abstract hypothesis (front integrative cortex-->frontal lobes), and Active testing (Motor cortex).What is important to note is the multisensory learning that takes place in the brain indicated by the arrows. In addition, all the components discussed about plasticity, neural pruning, active learning, etc., should be integrated in this cycle. To keep all these components in mind may seem complex, but as Hodges explains, it is necessary to "have a more thorough understanding of how the brain works" so that educators are not only looking at effective strategies and best practices, but at the neuroscientific research that explains 'how' and 'why'.


I agree there needs to be a greater connection between the neuroscience and the music education world. If more educators increase their knowledge and awareness on effective strategies and best practices by looking at what is really happening inside the brain, the teaching and learning process will be that much more rich. The findings about brain plasticity, musical training and memory,or neural pruning for example are all elements that directly affect the children in the classroom. It seems, particularly from the Colloquy sessions at U of T that there is a steady movement in integration and collaboration of new ideas, research, in music and health/neuroscience. I hope the same can happen for teachers in the classroom, including music educators.

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