“Musical arts” or “music-making” means much more than playing music or listening to it. Singing, rap and musicals are also part of the musical arts. In addition, the musical arts include composing music, reading music, analyzing, arranging, notating and creating music.
Neurobiologist Mark Jude Tramo of Harvard Medical School says, “Music is biologically part of human life, just as music is aesthetically part of human life.” Compelling evidence supports the hypothesis that musical arts may provide a positive, significant and lasting benefit to learners. There is no single piece of evidence, but the diversity and depth of supporting material is overwhelming. If this were a court case, the ruling would be music is valuable “beyond reasonable doubt.”
Music is part of our biological heritage and is hard-wired into our genes as a survival strategy. If Darwin was right, traits and behaviors which enhance the survival of a species will be selected by nature because they’ll better insure the perpetuation of a species from one generation to the next.
Could the use of music increase survival chances? Cave paintings depicting the use of music go back 70,000 years. Flutes have been found in France dating as far back as 30,000 years. Music, vocalized or played by an individual or sung as social chorus (birds, whales or ape choruses) may have been used to attract a mate. It’s possible others were attracted to those producing louder,better or more pleasing sounds. In addition, music was often used for intra-group communication which increased group safety and identification. Likely, robust vocalization improved notification of pending threat or environmental changes.
Music may be used to increase harmony and social bonding among those playing it or listening to it. Music may have also contributed to changes in the brain (i.e. verbal memory, counting and self-discipline), which may have enhanced survival. And, finally, making music probably strengthened listening skills, certainly a valued trait when hunting game or escaping predators. In fact, the human brain appears to have highly specialized structures for music: For instance, melodic contour, has corresponding brain cells that process it. Other cells in the mammalian auditory cortex have been found that process specific harmonic relationships (Sutter & Schreiner 1991). The rhythmic, temporal qualities have been linked to a specific group of neurons in the auditory cortex.
Music Enhances Cognition
Music-making contributes to the development of essential cognitive systems which include reasoning, creativity, thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. It does this by activating and synchronizing neural firing patterns that orchestrate and connect multiple brain sites. The neural synchrony ensembles increase both the brain’s efficiency and effectiveness. These key systems are well-connected and located in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes as well as the cerebellum. The strongest studies support the value of music-making in spatial reasoning, creativity and generalized mathematical skills. The activation between family groups of cortical neurons assist the cortex in pattern recognition.
This multiple-site, cross-activation may be necessary for higher brain functions including music, cognition and memory. While far from universally accepted, a basic theory of neuronal ensembles is gaining support from others in relation to other sensory and motor areas. Patterns of a neural symphony form a plausible model that suggests music has a fast track to engaging and enhancing higher brain activities. A Russian study suggests that listening to music just an hour a day does change brain reorganization. The experimental music group of four-year olds heard one hour a day of classical music. When later measured, their EEG readouts showed greater brain coherence and more time spent in the alpha state.
This body of data hints that music does influence not just brain activity, but coherence, making more of the brain active and acting as a whole, not in just random electrical discharges. One way that “whole” brain electrical activity shows us is in our chemical response. Evidence suggests music can modulate chemicals which influence behaviors such as serotonin, noradrenaline and cortisol. As music influences stress levels, social feelings, self concept, activity levels and the reward system, we can only look to refine the ways we use it prudently in our schools.
Music may be the foundation for later math and science excellence. In Japan, Hungary and the Netherlands, music instruction is required. In Japan, students get a minimum of two courses per week in music-making. In Hungary, students get three classes a week unless they enroll in the music magnet schools where they get it every day. In the Netherlands, music and other arts became mandatory in 1968. Today, students are assigned comprehensive art projects to complete prior to graduation. The payoff? Math and science scores are near the top in the world!
The collective wisdom from real-world experience, clinical studies and research support the view that music has strong positive neurological system-wide effects. There’s virtually no evidence of downside risk. So far, the evidence suggests that there are greater benefits from playing compared to listening. The enhanced and lasting effects come more from long-term music playing than one-time or short-term music playing.
Based on the evidence gathered so far, it’s both reasonable and prudent that music should be a significant part of every child’s education. It is the ethical, scientific and cultural imperative that all children get exposure to music as an equal with every other discipline. There is also support for the policy of starting children early in their music education as the effects are greater in the early years. Positive impact increases with each additional year.