This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/
and the end of this newsletter.
Relevance of Music
“Song is the slowing down of speech in order
to savor nuance.” (Marshall McLuhan; Canadian educator, philosopher,
and scholar; 1911–1980.)
Volitional Movement in Organisms
The principal task of a brain is to plan, execute, and predict
movement. Plants don't have a brain because they're not going anywhere
of their own volition, so they don't even need to know where they are.
What's the point of knowing that other plants have better access to
sunshine and nutrients or that a logger is approaching if you can't do
anything about it? But if an organism has the capacity for volitional
movement, it needs sensory and attention systems to alert it to
dangers/opportunities, decision and memory systems to determine an
appropriate response, and a motor system to regulate movement.
Our brain has an elegantly simple system to regulate all physical and
psychological movement (including the movement of symbolic information
between sender and receiver): it combines specific sequences of a
relatively small number of basic movements to create more complex
movements. For example, five basic arm/hand/finger movements—reach,
grasp, elevate, retract, tip—execute the action of drinking water from
But what's amazing is that five letters—D-R-I-N-K—can verbally
represent that five step action, and that Ben Johnson's metaphoric
lyrics and melody "Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I will pledge
with mine" can musically transform a solo nutritional necessity into a
human bonding phenomenon. We thus can almost limitlessly sequence
selections of perhaps a couple dozen basic appendage movements, 26
letters, 5-12 musical scale tones, and 10 digits to create the
wonderful complexities of human thought and behavior.
We Add Style and Grace
But we don't only simply move, we also seek to move with
style and grace, so the aesthetics of movement that define the arts add
an important dimension to human identity and behavior—arm movements
with a violin bow, finger movements on a keyboard, brush movements on a
canvas, actors' and dancers movements on a stage.
Consider the difference between language and song. Articulate speech
compresses an extended thought into a stream of rapidly moving phonemic
sounds that transmit information. The spoken message identifies key
objects (nouns) and events (verbs) that are then clarified by
adjectives and adverbs, and syntactically positioned by prepositions
and conjunctions. Variations in volume and tone are typically used in
order to increase the flow of information.
Conversely, song communicates how we feel about a unit of information.
Songs can communicate an emotionally strong message of love and hate,
of commitment and alienation, of opportunity and danger by slowing down
the flow of the message (extending the vowels, repeating phrases). This
permits the singer to use such musical properties as melody, rhythm,
volume, timbre, and instrumental accompaniment to insert powerful
emotional overtones into such primal messages as ‘I love you’ or ‘I
reject war’ or ‘Don’t abandon me.’ Such emotional overtones are much
more difficult to insert into speech—adjectives and adverbs typically
being a poor substitute for musical properties.
Articulate speech and writing thus provide useful information, but song
and the rest of the arts communicate how we feel about that
information. Information without affect is psychologically meaningless.
Music and other manifestations of the arts are thus central to a
qualitative human life (Sylwester, 2007).
Where Is Music Processed in Our Brain?
The conventional wisdom had been that language was processed in
the left hemisphere and music in the right hemisphere. Neuroimaging
research has now discovered considerable hemispheric overlap in how our
brain processes language and music. It makes sense. All forms of
physical and psychological movement are functionally and biologically
interrelated, and so draw on widespread processing systems. All need to
be developed during our youth, and maintained throughout life.
Music typically enters a child’s life before other forms of movement and expression are functional. Motherese
is the term commonly used for the initial high-pitched, exaggerated,
repetitive, melodic communication format that parents use to engage
their child’s attention. The infant doesn’t initially understand the
words we use, but simply attends to the verbal and musical
communication patterns and rhythms. The joy infants typically express
during this interaction encourages parents to continue motherese until
articulate speech emerges. What’s important about this introduction is
that children learn best through observing and replicating the behavior
of another person, and learning is enhanced when such interactive
behavior is aesthetically grounded. Oral communication thus begins with
music, and we often return to music when words alone fail to adequately
communicate our message (Sylwester, 2010).
Since song enhances the development of our vocal system, and
instrumental music enhances the development of our arm/leg movement
systems, it’s important that our culture’s formal and informal
education systems incorporate explicit music instruction in as many
ways as possible. The continuing decline of music instruction in K-12
education is thus a biological tragedy, given that it’s occurring just
as credible cognitive neuroscience research is discovering its
Recent Research Resources
The July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind
contains Diana Deutsch’s excellent synthesis (“Speaking in Tones”) of
recent educationally significant research discoveries on the underlying
neurobiology of the overlapping relationship between our brain's
language and music processing systems. See Deutsch (7/29/2010),
and learn more about Diana Deutsch and her other work at http://deutsch.ucsd.edu
The August 14, 2010 issue of Science News
similarly contains a very informative 16 page special section on the
underlying neurobiology of music and its development: A Mind For Music.
See (Quill, 2010).
Carl Zimmer’s column (The Brain) in the December 2010 issue of Discover Magazine
discusses the issue of whether music is an essential adaptation that
strengthens social bonds or simply a fortunate biological accident (or
as cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker put it – auditory
cheesecake). See http://discovermagazine.com/2010/oct/26-ringing-in-the-ears-goes-much-deeper
Two recent excellent books provide an informative non-technical background of the nature of music in human life:
In The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
(2006), Steven Mithen leads readers through the considerable evidence
from archeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and musicology
that supports the growing belief that musical capabilities within early
humans led to language (the opposing belief being that music is
basically a pleasant evolutionary by-product of human language).
Mithen is an early pre-history scholar, and his book makes demands on
readers with a limited background in the several research areas it
explores. Notes and references comprise almost 100 pages of the
400-page book. Still, its breadth, passion, and conversational writing
make it fascinating and informative for those who are disturbed by the
recent reduction in music education, and realize that they must
initially convince educational leaders that the concept of language
For example, language and music are related in that both can be vocal
(as in speech and song) and gestural (as in sign language, instrumental
music, and dance), and both can exist in a written format. Music and
language are both a product of body/head movements that transmit
information from one brain to another. Both music and language are
hierarchical in that acoustic elements (words, tones) combine into
phrases (utterances, melodies) that can further combine into larger
entities (stories, symphonies). These and other similarities are
possible because of specific related brain properties that Mithen
explains and explores to support his belief in the co-evolution of our
music and language capabilities.
Daniel Levitin approaches the music/language issue from a career that
led him from session musician to sound engineer to record producer to
neuroscientist to his current position as a professor of the psychology
of electronic communication. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
(2006) is a marvelous book for folks with a reasonable understanding of
music who want to understand its underlying neurobiology—what occurs
within our brain when we're listening to or making music.
Levitin rejects the widespread belief that music is something experts
do, and that the rest of us should simply appreciate their musical
virtuosity. He argues rather that music is an innate human property
that develops as easily in children as other forms of language.
Preschool children playfully explore the elements of both music and
language. Schools then develop basic articulate language skills beyond
their informal beginnings, but most schools don't do the same for music
skills and comprehension that must be explicitly taught.
Levitin thus begins his book with an intriguing informative
introduction to the elements of music (rhythm, pitch, melody, harmony,
tempo, timbre, harmony) that most of us should have learned in school
but didn't. He connects these elements to specific well-known musical
works from classical to jazz to hip-hop (and to almost everything in
He further connects these musical elements to the appropriate brain
systems and functions—demonstrating in the process that music
integrates our brain's emotional, rational, and movement systems in a
way that no other activity does. Music is thus central to the
development and maintenance of our brain.
Deutsch, Diana (7/29/2010). Speaking in tones: Music and language partner in the brain. Scientific American Mind. Retrieved 11/1/2010 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=speaking-in-tones-jul10.
Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Dutton.
Mithen, S. (2006). The singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind, and body. Cambridge MA: Harvard.
Quill, Elizabeth (8/14/2010). A mind for music. Science News. Retrieved 11/1/2010 from http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/61560/title/A_mind_for_music.
Sylwester, R. (2007.) The adolescent brain: Reaching for autonomy. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.
Sylwester, R. (2010). A child’s brain: The need for nurture. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.
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