"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, December 09, 2013

Ending the Achievement Gap With Music Education

Psychology Today Magazine advertises on the Huffington Post. In a recent article, PT reports on how important music education can be for brain development, as well as cognitive and emotional growth for children. Perhaps child psychologists and educators should be talking more.

So why has the Department of Education and Arne Duncan and friends who care so much about children implemented policies that cut music and the arts from schools in favor of high stakes testing.

It is like feeding junk food to a child and then expecting him or her to be healthy.

Hiring music instructors and teaching children music would be a huge boost for test scores because math and reading as well as nurturing the soul and overall health and anxiety would also be a valuable outcome.

However, it appears that all the talk these days is about test scores and standardized testing, and those all important "performance reviews" for teachers.

Today's NYT new series on "The Invisible Child" aka homeless children, shows us how well the no excuses policies have worked.  The NYT reporter shines a bright spotlight on the lives of the 22,000 homeless children in the city. Meanwhile, their teachers are scrambling to let them know there are "no excuses" and a number on a bubble in test will determine whether his or her teacher will be fired.

A few music lessons and a place to escape might be a good alternative to drill and kill on meaningless fill in the bubble sheets and scripted curriculum. It would cost the taxpayers a lot less on the front end and the back end, but then again, Pearson, Bill Gates and all those other philanthropic billionaires might
feel like the hip, rock and rollers are getting too much of the limelight.

Perhaps one day, artists like Bruce Springsteen, all musicians will stand up and defend the one thing that saved their lives when they realized they just weren't that into academics and bubble in tests.

Reclaim school reform is a movement that can not be stopped. The current status quo of defining education as a number of a high stakes standardized test is unsustainable because it is essentially inhumane.

Neuroscientists are discovering multiple ways that musical training improves the function and connectivity of different brain regions. Musical training increases brain volume and strengthens communication between brain areas. Playing an instrument changes how the brain interprets and integrates a wide range of sensory information, especially for those who start before age 7. These findings were presented at the Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego.
In a press briefing on November 11, 2013 Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD—who is an expert on music, neuroimaging and brain plasticity from Harvard Medical School—summarized the new research from three different presentations at the conference. These insights suggest potential new roles for musical training including fostering plasticity in the brain; have strong implications for using musical training as a tool in education; and for treating a range of learning disabilities.
Playing a musical instrument can cause fundamental changes in a young person's brain, shaping both how it functions and how it is physically structured, researchers say. "Listening to and making music is not only an auditory experience, but it is a multisensory and motor experience. Making music over a long period of time can change brain function and brain structure," Schlaug said. 

Three Brain Benefits of Musical Training:
  1. Musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight.
  2. The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult; beginning training before the age of seven has the greatest impact.
  3. Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the brain.
"Music might provide an alternative access into a broken or dysfunctional system within the brain," said Schlaug. Adding, "Music has the unique ability to go through alternative channels and connect different sections of the brain."
Three New Studies on the Brain Benefits of Musical Training
The first study, conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal, asked trained musicians and non-musicians to respond to sound and touch sensations at the same time. Two sounds were delivered at the same time a person received one touch sensation, which was intended to create the perceptual illusion that the person actually had received two touch sensations. 
Since musicians have to simultaneously work their instrument, read sheet music and listen to the tones they produce, the researchers predicted that they would be better at differentiating sound from touch. Their hypothesis was correct. Non-musicians fell for the perceptual illusion, but musicians did not, according to researcher Julie Roy from the University of Montreal. "Musicians are able to ignore the auditory stimuli and only report what they are feeling," Roy said, adding "that this is solid evidence of an improved ability to process information from more than one sense at the same time."
The second study involved brain scans of 48 adults aged between 19 and 21, who had at least a year of musical training while growing up. The researchers discovered that brain regions related to hearing and self-awareness appeared to be larger in people who began taking music lessons before age 7.
These findings seem to indicate that musical training can have a huge impact on the developing brain, since brain maturation tends to peak around age 7, said lead researcher Yunxin Wang, of the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University. Specifically, these areas tended to have more gray matter leading to a thicker cortex, which is the outer layer of the cerebrum.
The third study found that brain circuitry can be reshaped by musical training through neuroplasticity. For the study, Swedish researchers analysed brain function of 39 pianists who were asked to play a special 12-key piano keyboard while having their brain scanned in an MRI. Ana Pinho, the lead author of the study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, reported that systematic training actually helped improve brain areas related to music improvisation. The ability to improvise improved brain connectivity resulting in less dependence on working memory.  


  1. Music is good for everyone - just like a good diet or exercise regimen. It is no better for children than it is for adults and seniors. What gets me is that we use this info as a rallying cry for saving music programs in schools - which reach a very small demographic. I wonder why there aren't more professional music teachers in our communities, working with families and folks of all ages? It seems to me that the profession of music teaching could really benefit from making more private music available to learners of all ages. Is it because our teacher training programs in universities are woefully outdated? Is it because they often train future music educators to seek El-Hi band, choir, and orchestra teaching jobs that are increasingly dwindling? It doesn't make sense (or cents). We need to help ourselves as a profession and move away from this "poor me" attitude where we're constantly trying to defend music because it "makes kids better at math". Am I the only one who sees the plethora of great research about music and the brain falling on deaf ears and going to waste?

  2. Anonymous3:31 PM

    you said " It seems to me that the profession of music teaching could really benefit from making more private music available."

    There are plenty of private music lessons available at a rate of $20 per half hour or $40 - $100 per hour depending on your zip code.

    What is missing is music education in public school and an investment in instruments and music teachers in a school. One music teacher for hundreds of students is seriously lame and in many schools, you won't find even one music teacher.

    Music, like everything else, is not viewed as a common good as is high stakes standardized testing.