Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

The Musical Brain and Our Life with Music

Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

The Musical Brain and Our Life with Music

Article excerpt

Most of my teaching life at the university is in classrooms full of pre-service general classroom teachers. These students are preparing to enter the primary and elementary classroom to guide our children in all the subjects of the curriculum. They are with me for a brief time to get an introduction to music education and to build some skills in working with children through music. We are fortunate in Newfoundland to have a music program that is designed for delivery by specialists so the preparation of classroom teachers is relieved of the full responsibility for the music curriculum. At the same time, one of the biggest challenges is to convince these pre-service generalists both of the need for music in the lives of children and also for the way we choose in our curriculum to deliver musical activities to our school children.

Most music specialists have a strong intuitive understanding of how music should be taught to children. We do not, however, all agree and it is on this point that looking toward science and research can help. If we can determine how humans and music relate to each other we can possibly select the best methods from among the many intuitive ways that teachers have constructed for engaging children with musical activities.

Over the years I've seen various ways of promoting music move in and out of our consciousness as a profession. We have come from meeting patriotic needs during the 20th century's world wars to a strong aesthetic education basis for school music, to sociological considerations as a driving force, to simple but effective basic advocacy models and then through the multiple intelligence model. Now we are becoming more and more aware of the role that brain science can play in supporting and possibly leading our profession. There have been many scholars who have worked in this area and a few have had a big profile in the general media as well. Rauscher comes to mind as a leader in this area and her claims of permanent IQ gains in spatial reasoning for young children engaged in music study have provide a great deal of fodder for dialogue in the profession.

It was, therefore, a wonderful experience for me to watch the TV special titled The Musical Brain. This show is based, for the most part, on the work of Daniel Levitin at McGill University. He is also the author of a 2006 book called: This is your brain on music (Dutton-Penguin). The TV show is based in large part on his research with Sting, who became a research subject as a master musician and who volunteered for brain scanning tests with Levitin.

As I watched the show I couldn't help putting the information together with what I do in my pre-service teacher classroom. While trying to secure a reasonable basis for the methodologies that I recommend I am often drawn to this new brain research. Here then was further proof of what we reasonably ought to be doing in the classroom.

Music exists only in the brain. This assertion is made firmly in the show. While sounds in our world are received by our ears, it is the brain that captures these and decides to call these sounds music. Levitin says, therefore, that music simply does not exist outside the brain. So what better way to look at music than through the brain scan.

The first experiment with Sting was to have him "imagine" playing music in his head. "Right", I said, "inner hearing". We recommend this all the time in our methodology. The first results were that Sting's body moved to the music he was imagining. Levitin says there is an evolutionary link between movement (dance) and music. When I look through all the major music methods for young children such as Orff, Koday and Dalcroze, I see them full of movement for young children. Levitin says that the deepest parts of our brain are ordering us to move. Furthermore, as sociologists and ethnomusicologists have pointed out as well, music and dance are the same activity in human evolution. It is only the small bit of music we refer to as Western classical music that grew up in isolation from movement with patrons sitting still in a concert hall (toe wiggling aside). …

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