The Earliest Music Lessons
The Musician's Brain
Recent Publication of Special Interest
Music lessons come in many forms. There are formal lesson, which are highly structured and follow a carefully worked out series of increasing complexities. There are also informal lessons. Most often these consist simply of watching and listening to someone perform. Both provide opportunities to learn about music and both promote and encourage the incorporation of a musical sense into cognition and emotion. Today we consider informal music lessons, in particular the earliest lessons in music, those of the human infant.
In the inaugural issue of Music Research Notes, we highlighted the surprising musical capacities of infants ("The Musical Infant", MRN, 1994, 1, #1). Also noted were some parallels between music and language competencies and the fact that infant language behaviors are strongly reinforced and encouraged by parents and caregivers, in contrast to musical behaviors, which are not. Here, we expand on this theme, focusing on a generally ignored but hardly insignificant fact. Infants receive music "lessons" beginning immediately after birth, from parents and others. These lessons are in the form not only of music but also of language. Although music and language are normally viewed as quite separate, they actually have fundamental commonalties, particularly as practiced to infants.
Let's begin with language. Parents, siblings, relatives, virtually everyone speaks to the newborn child. However, this sort of speech turns out to be quite different from other speech, so called "normal" speech. In what ways is "baby talk", more generally referred to as infant-directed speech, different? In several way, as revealed by extensive scientific study. First, the content is simple. Infants do not understand complex and abstract speech and thus such speech is avoided when talking to them. Second, baby talk often involves non-words, repeated sounds .... "cootchy-cootchy-coos", if you will. Third, infant directed speech is often structured to arouse attention and so the words and other sounds targeted for infants are themselves reinforced by the infant's behavior. What works is often repeated, what doesn't is often discarded in a given situation. We will return to this interactive aspect a bit later, noting for now that the baby is not merely the passive recipient of speech.
Together these and perhaps other factors result in infant-directed speech whose prosody is in marked contrast to that of normal speech. It has simple repeating pitch contours (patterns of pitch changes) and slower tempo, often with an overall higher and more restricted range of pitch (1). Often, vocal contact with infants has a rather sing-song character and the dividing line between this type of speech and singing, with or without words, is not always clear.
In any event, speech to infants does, of course, constitute lessons in language, more specifically lessons in speech, for in the absence of hearing speech, normal speech fails to develop. And to the extent that such speech has musical qualities, it also provides lessons in music.
But of course infants hear quite a lot of sound that is unambiguously music, because people sing to them. Lullabies are devoted almost exclusively to children, beginning in infancy. And interestingly, lullabies have many of the same characteristics as infant-directed speech. Thus both have simple pitch contours, and repeating rhythms. Furthermore both contain many elongated vowel sounds. These characteristics are not restricted to nationality or locale. Rather, they are found across cultures; those investigated to date are North, Central and South American, North European, East Asian and Central Asian (2). In each case lullabies have the same basic features.
This cross-cultural commonalty raises an interesting question. Is there something about lullabies that is readily identifiable across cultures? Do ordinary listeners not trained in music, who do not understand a different language or the culture from which it springs, know a lullaby when they hear one? Trehub and her colleagues addressed this question by asking English speaking adults to listen to two songs each from several cultures and pick the one which was the lullaby (3). Listeners were correct far more often than chance. Of note, lullabies were picked on the basis that they were the simpler of the two songs in a pair. Moreover, this determination was made even when all songs were altered from their original recordings by electronic filtering to remove words and even when the songs were electronically altered so they had the same timbre. In a follow-up experiment, listeners failed to correctly identify lullabies when sound cues that indicate vocal quality were removed. The authors concluded that lullabies were detected on the basis of their sounding similar to prosodic the characteristics of speech to infants.
As mentioned above, casual observation indicates that infants are not merely passive listeners. The way that they react to vocal communication is noted by the speaker or singer, whose vocal behavior in turn might be affected. This issue has now been studied systematically in an experiment on the contribution of the infant (age range four to thirteen months) to the quality of maternal singing in two cultures, North American and East Indian (4). Mothers sang a song of their choice both with their infant present and absent. Adult listeners judged for which of the two recordings the infant was present. The songs selected included many play songs (e.g., "Twinkle-Twinkle...") and also religious songs and some lullabies but the findings pertain to all of these types. Songs in the presence of infants were detected successfully within both cultures. Furthermore, correct identification was also found across cultures. Some of the cues apparently used to make correct judgments were the emphasis on sustained vowels, more gliding between pitch levels and slightly slower singing when infants were present. Thus, there is a distinctive style of singing to infants. It appears to depend on an interaction between singer and infant listener and its features are closely related to infant-directed speech.
Overall, it now seems clear that there is little distinction between infant-directed speech and song, that infants react to the prosodic and musical qualities of the two forms of vocal communication, and that the earliest of language lessons are in no sense merely linguistic. These conclusions support the view that the new human comes "equipped" with both language and music competencies.
A final point to ponder. While language lessons increase intensively and always evolve from informal to formal as children enter formal education, music lessons generally don't. Parents and family increase their speaking to young children but it seems that they generally stop singing to them. Perhaps parents should not only continue to sing but also encourage young children to sing as well as to speak. If their early music lessons continued, informal though they may be, greater development of musical as well as linguistic abilities might be attained.
(1) Stern, D.N., Spieker, S., & MacKain, K. (1982). Intonation contours as signals in maternal speech to prelinguistic infants. Developmental Psychology, 18: 727-735.
Jacobson, J.L., Boersma, D.C., Fields, R.B., & Olson, K.L. (1993). Paralinguistic features of speech to infants and small children. Child Development, 54: 436-442.
Fernald, A., & Simon, T. (1984). Expanded intonation contours in mothers' speech to newborns. Developmental Psychology, 20: 104-113.;
Papousek, M., Papousek, H., & Symmes, D. (1991). The meanings of melodies in motherese in tone and stress languages. Infant Behavior and Development, 14: 415-440.
(2) Hilger, M.I. (1952). Arapaho child life and its cultural background. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 148.
Kortsen, B. (1970). 77 Norwegian Lullabies According to Dr. O. M. Sandvik. Bergen, Norway.
List, G. (1973). A comparison of certain aspects of Colombian and Spanish folk song. Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council, 5: 72-84.
McCosker, S.S. (1974). The Lullabies of the San Blas Cuna Indians of Panama. Gothenburg, Sweden: Gothenburg Ethnographical Museum..
Cong-Huyen-Ton-Nu, N.T. (1979). The functions of folk songs in Vietnam. In: J. Blacking & J. W. Kealinohomoku (Eds.) The Performing Arts: Music and Dance. The Hague: Mouton.
Sakata, H.L. (1987). Hazara women in Afghanistan: Innovators and preservers of a musical tradition. In E. Koskoff (Ed.). Women and Music in Cross-cultural Perspective. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
(3) Unyk, A.M., Trehub, S.E., Trainor, L.J., & Schellenberg, E.G. (1992). Lullabies and simplicity: A cross-cultural perspective. Psychology of Music, 20: 15-28.
Trehub, S.F., Unyk, A.M., & Trainor, L.J. (1993). Adults identify infant-directed music across cultures. Infant Behavior and Development, 16: 193-211.
(4) Trehub, S.E., Unyk, A.M., &
Trainor, L.J.(1993). Maternal singing in cross cultural perspective.
Infant Behavior and Development, 16: 285-295.
As the brain is the substrate of all mental processes and their behavioral outcome, and as musicianship is certainly a complex of such processes and their resultant behavioral performances, it would seem that the brains of musicians might be different than the brains of non-musicians. What is now known? Although this complex issue can't be covered completely here, we can summarize some interesting findings that do indicate how the brains of musicians and non-musicians differ.
Before we get started, two points should be made. First, there is no strict dividing line between musicians and non-musicians. The former are not all professionals or those with eight years of formal music education, or necessarily any formal musical education. When does a beginning music student become a musician? An initial solution to this problem is to compare groups of people at opposite ends of a continuum of musicality, such as comparing professionals with those who are musically naive.
Second, they might be differences in the brains of the two groups that cannot be discerned yet because of the current state of technology. For example, the stored knowledge of how to transpose to different keys is not yet detectable by brain scans. Thus, failures to find certain differences may not be sufficient reason to categorically reject such differences.
With these points in mind, we begin with the cerebral hemispheres. Overall, and somewhat simplified for present purposes, the left hemisphere (LH) is most important for analytic processes (e.g., details) while the right hemisphere (RH) seems more important for processing global information (e.g., patterns). Notably, most language processes depend on the LH (in right handed individuals). It is often wrongly assumed that all music processing takes place in the RH. Many years ago, Bever and Chiarello discovered that naive listeners depend on the RH for discriminating melodic sequences but musicians use the LH for this task (1). It seems that musicians may process melodies in a more analytic, "language-like" manner than non-musicians.
Are there any anatomical differences between the LH and RH in musicians vs. non-musicians? In a very recent study, Schlaug et al (2). used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the sizes of the "planum temporale" in the left and right hemispheres. This structure includes auditory association cortex. Groups of professional musicians and non-musicians were matched for age, sex and handiness. The authors found that musicians had a larger left vs. right planum temporale than non-musicians. Thus, one could conclude that the brains of musicians show gross anatomical differences from those of non-musicians. However, this difference was due entirely to a subset of musicians who had perfect pitch; other musicians did not differ from the control group. Therefore, the distinction is not "music vs. non-music" but "perfect pitch vs. "non-perfect pitch". These findings underscore the need for thoughtful analysis and restraint against jumping to conclusions but do reveal that perfect pitch may be due to more brain tissue being "allocated" to the auditory cortex.
These anatomical findings also have a physiological counterpart. For example, Barnea et al recorded electrical potentials in the cerebral cortex that are elicited by musical stimuli. They found differences in the extent of cortical areas that respond, between musicians who do have perfect pitch compared to those who do not (3).
Although these results pertain to perfect pitch, there are neurophysiological differences that distinguish musicians from non-musicians For example, Besson, Faita and Requin (4) studied differences in the processing of melodic material. They presented musical phrases that ended either in a congruous or incongruous note. The brain wave response evoked by this ending note differed between the groups, including a faster brain response by the musicians.
Differences in the way that the brain processes timbre also have been detected. Crummer and co-workers required musicians with and without perfect pitch and non-musicians to perform timbre discrimination tasks. For example, the same pitch was compared for cello vs. viola (easy), wood vs. metal flute (moderate difficulty) and instruments of slightly different size (B-flat vs F tubas), which was most difficult. The amplitude of brain potentials evoked by the notes was greater in musicians vs. non-musicians for the difficult discrimination and the brain potentials occurred fastest for musicians with perfect pitch (5).
Overall, these studies point to the following conclusions. First, perfect pitch, but not musicality per se, apparently has a cortical anatomical basis. Second, the processing of selected musical elements, as revealed by brain potentials, is facilitated in musicians compared to naive listeners. Third, musicians can process music in a different cognitive mode than naive listeners. The latter two findings suggest that a transition from RH to LH processing of music might be a fundamental aspect of the transition from musically naive to musically adept.
It would be interesting to assess the presumptive development of LH capabilities for relevant elements of music by both behavioral tests and by the recording of brain responses at various stages of musical training. The technology is readily available, present in thousands of medical and college settings, non-invasive and in widespread use for diagnostic and study purposes. Why not apply it to education? This would seem to be a potentially powerful way to join the separate expertise of music educators and relevant neuroscientists in an enterprise that would clearly yield results greater than the sum of its parts.
(1) Bever , T.G. & Chiarello, R.J. (1974) Cerebral dominance
in musicians and nonmusicians. Science, 185: 537-539
(2) Schlaug, G., Jancke, L., Huang, Y., & Steinmetz, H. (1995).
In vivo evidence of structural brain asymmetry in musicians. Science,
(3) Barnea, A., Granot, R., & Pratt, H. (1994). Absolute pitch-electrophysiological
evidence. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 16:
(4) Besson, M., Faita, F., Requin, J. (1994). Brain waves associated
with musical incongruities differ for musicians and non-musicians.
Neuroscience Letters, 168:101-105.
(5) Crummer, G.C., Walton, J.P., Wayman, J.W., Hantz, E.C. &
Frisina, R.D. (1994). Neural processing of musical timbre by
musicians, nonmusicans, and musicians possessing absolute pitch.
Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 95:
How About "Educational Trials" for Music?
The following opinions about music. are based on the reports of scientific studies. This does not mean that the opinions carry the same importance as the results of such studies themselves. They are simply opinions, intended to provoke thought and sometimes perhaps even argument, but ultimately to energize and enlarge thought and action on music
In previous issues of MRN, we pointed out fairly direct connections between music and behavior, with an emphasis on the high level of musical competence of infants (MRN, 1994, I, #1, The Musical Infant) and the effect of music on mental development of young children (MRN, 1994, I, #2, Music and Cognitive Achievement in Children). In this issue, we discuss, among other things, parallels between language and music, noting the early informal music lessons received by newborns and infants.
Studies cited in these articles come from a vast literature on studies of music, behavior and the brain. Certainly, there are thousands of other experiments and reports that can serve as the basis for further reviews and commentaries in these pages. However, I have been struck more by what is not in this literature than what has been published. The caveat, of course, is that no one know the entire corpus of work, least of all this writer. Nonetheless, many studies that one would have expected are not there, or at least not easy to locate.
One of the areas that seems to be severely deficient concerns education and music. I do not refer to studies of music education itself, for this is a rich and extensive literature. One finds a large body of systematic studies of the factors that affect learning about music, instrumental and vocal performance and many other important topics. No, I refer to the relationship between music as a part of the normal process of education and other non-arts subjects, such as reading, writing. arithmetic, languages, social studies, history, science, and the like.
One can find occasional reports of the use of music to teach about culture, particularly cultures unknown to the student. These are rare in any case. One cannot find much about how education in music and the arts influences education in other subjects, and vice-versa. It seems to be assumed that each of the subjects taught engages a separate and hermetically sealed brain system. Can it be that there are separate modes of thought for every subject? Isn't it worth considering the hypothesis that intellectual development, to say nothing of personal development, is facilitated by interactions between or among subjects? Isn't a core goal of education to maximize the functional brain power of every student? Why not undertake widespread "educational trials" in music and arts education as they relate reciprocally to other subjects.
What do I mean by "educational trials"? This concept is based on the term "clinical trials" which reflects the widespread controlled studies conducted under the auspices of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to evaluate the effectiveness of a new drug. The operative phrase here is "controlled studies" because without these, one cannot evaluate the effectiveness of the drug. Were the FDA to rely only on anecdotal reports, or fervent individual claims, or well intentioned but unfounded concoctions, then most of us would be wasting our money on ineffective medicines, be made ill from dangerous drugs, or be ill because there existed few effective treatments.
Much of current knowledge about the role of music in general intellectual development is anecdotal. This is not good enough.
What kind of "educational trials" and what kind of "medicines"? Well, with the very obvious danger of pushing a metaphor too far, here is a modest suggestion. Treat arts education as the "treatment" under examination. No, don't ignore the arts and their benefits within their own areas, don't justify them only on the basis of their effectiveness in "treating" other school subjects (more about that in a moment), don't relegate them to permanent second class status. Rather, additionally determine the extent to which music and other arts education affects the learning of other subjects. More specifically, assess their ability, when used in a directed manner, to promote the learning, retention and ability to use material taught in other subjects.
How to do this? For starters, promote the initiation and continuance of interactions between appropriate cognitive scientists in colleges and universities and local public school administrations and teachers. Have school superintendents and school boards support pilot programs which have protocols for selected studies with built-in evaluative procedures. Involve parents, caregivers, families. Bring theory, from academia, and practice, in the front lines of the schools, together in an equal partnership. Do this on a large scale, across geographical regions, cultures and subcultures, urban and rural, etc.
Is this possible? Is it too costly? What about the endless details?
Which specific questions should be asked? How can we get an overburdened,
underfunded public education system to try something so different?
There are numerous other questions. Does the "trials"
idea go too far into the land of the hopelessly naive, passing
directly from the Ivory Tower without even a side trip to the
land of educational reality? There will be no answers unless
there are efforts to give "educational trials in the arts"
Heavy Metal, Rap and Adolescent Behavior
There is widespread
concern about the possible negative effects on behavior of listening
to certain types of music, particularly in adolescents. There
seems not to be a great deal of systematic study of this topic
but a recent report by Kevin J. Took and David S. Weiss in the
journal Adolescence (1994, 29, 613-621) is quite
relevant. The authors studied the relationships between listening
to heavy metal and rap music and adolescent "psychosocial
turmoil". Subjects were 12-18 years of age (average 14.6
years), equally divided between the sexes, who were patients under
some treatment for various behavioral and psychological problems
at a military medical center's adolescent medicine unit or similar
facility. Their parents were attached to the military. Questionnaires
revealed differences between teenagers who preferred heavy metal
and rap compared to others who did not. They had poorer school
grades, more behavioral problems in school, and more sexual activity,
drug and alcohol use and arrests. The relationship was stronger
for males than females. One obvious conclusion is that the music
caused, to some extent, the behavioral problems. However, further
detailed analysis of each student's background revealed that the
most troubled group exhibited serious behavioral problems in elementary
school, generally before they started listening to heavy metal
and rock. Thus, troubled students may be drawn to these types
of music and no clear causative relationship exists. Generalizations
from these findings would be premature. The sample does not represent
a cross section of adolescents in the United States, the reliance
of questionnaires, even with reliability checks used in the study,
is subject to some error and the possibility that music could
promote problems in already troubled teenagers was not investigated.
More research is needed.
Children's Accurate Interpretation of Emotion in Music
An important but neglected topic concerns the ability of young
children to interpret emotion in music. Recently John Kratus of
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio determined how
children six to twelve years of age judged the thirty variations
in J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, as performed
on piano by the late Glenn Gould. They classified each variation
as "happy, sad, excited or calm". To avoid any problems
that younger children might have had in reading, all students
selected pictures of various emotional states (e.g., "happy
face" simple drawing, etc.). The findings showed that children
of all age groups and both sexes were very consistent in their
interpretations of emotions across the many selections. They were
more consistent for the "happy-sad" than for the "excited-calm"
dichotomies but still did very well on both categories. Analysis
revealed that "happy" was associated with high rhythmic
activity and staccato articulation, "sad" with low rhythmic
activity and legato, "excited" with high rhythmic activity
in triple meter, and "calm" with low rhythmic activity
in duple meter. The findings show a surprising degree of emotional
sensitivity and accuracy, particularly in six year olds who had
no musical training. The author suggests that accurate emotional
response to music may develop in the first few years of life.
Using the picture method employed in this study, it should be
possible to extend this line of inquiry to children younger than
Children and Education
Davidson, Lee. Songsinging by young and old: A developmental approach to music. In: Musical Perceptions. 1994, Rita Aiello, (Ed.) Oxford University Press, New York, NY, US. pp. 99-130. (B)
Abstract: The development of tonal knowledge, including earliest
songs, the singing of musically untrained adults, and the perceptual
changes in tonal relationships that a student undergoes in music
school are reviewed. The author notes the absence of a comprehensive
view of the goal of musical development and instruction because
of the uncoordinated and loosely connected chunks of knowledge
that we have. The author encourages educators and professional
musicians to consider the psychological nature of musical knowledge
and argues that taking a developmental perspective reveals a great
deal about the nature of musical ability and the nature of effective
Persellin, Diane Cummings. Effects of learning modalities on melodic and rhythmic retention and on vocal pitch-matching by preschool children. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 1994 78 (n3, Pt 2, Spec Issue) 1231-1234.
Abstract: This study assessed whether melodic and rhythmic retention
as well as pitch-matching ability could be improved through use
of learning modalities in a sample of 61 preschoolers (aged 4-5
yrs). Children received music instruction in 1 of 4 ways: visually
(seeing visual aids with the music), auditorily (singing and listening),
kinesthetically (moving to music), or through multimodal presentations.
Subjects receiving the auditory and multimodal treatments scored
significantly higher on both the melodic and rhythmic posttests
than on pretests.
Kay, Sandra I.; Subotnik, Rena F. Talent Beyond Words: Unveiling spatial, expressive, kinesthetic, and musical talent in young children. (Special Issue: Javits grant projects). Gifted Child Quarterly, 1994,38: 70-74.
Abstract: This chapter describes a project designed to identify
and serve children with potential talent in the performing arts.
Four outcomes of the project were identified from data concerning
96 inner-city 3rd- and 4th-grade students who took part in the
3-yr after-school program. First, a model process was established
to identify youngsters with potential talent for dance and music.
Second, the project resulted in an expansion of classroom teachers'
greater ability to see a wider range of talent among their students
and to value the importance of full integration of the arts into
elementary education. Third, parents were more integrated into
the process of identifying and nurturing talent. Finally, the
project provided an opportunity to experience disciplined effort
toward accomplishing a valuable cultural goal. The project was
evaluated positively by the director, teachers, counselors, administrators,
parents, and students.
Music Perception and Cognition
Aiello, R. (Ed.), Musical Perceptions. 1994, New York:
Oxford University Press. (B)
Smith, J. David, Kemler Nelson, Deborah G.; Appleton, Terry. What child is this? What interval was that? Familiar tunes and music perception in novice listeners. Cognition, 1994, 52: 23-54.
Abstract: Two experiments examined the perception of musical intervals
(minor thirds, major thirds and perfect fourths) by musical novices.
Exp 1 involved 28 adults (aged 19-57 ERs) and Ex 2 involved 14
adults (aged 18-24 ERs). Subjects received either standard instructions
or familiar folk-tune labels to aid performance. The folk-tune
labels greatly improved identification performance, producing
expert-caliber performance by some musically inexperienced subjects.
The results suggest that novices do have some basic competence
when assayed appropriately.
Desain, P. & Honing, H. Music, Mind and Machine: Studies
in Computer Music, Music Cognition and Artificial Intelligence.
1992, Amsterdam: Thesis Publishers. (B)
Hassler M; Gupta D. Functional brain organization, handedness, and immune vulnerability in musicians and non-musicians. Neuropsychologia, 1993, 31: 655-60.
Abstract: This study explored relations between musical talent,
left-handedness, anomalous hemispheric dominance for verbal materials,
and immune vulnerability. Fifty-one young adult musicians and
non-musicians were tested with Wing's Standardized Tests of Musical
Intelligence, with a handedness questionnaire, a dichotic listening
task, and with a questionnaire assessing asthma/allergies, migraine
and myopia. In addition, hormonal and immune system measures were
obtained. Musical talent was related to left-handedness and to
anomalous dominance; immune vulnerability was found in female
musicians and in subjects with reversed dominance for language
functions as well as in male left-handers, independent of musical
Lorch, Colleen A.; Lorch, Vichien; Diefendorf, Allan O.; Earl, Patricia W. Effect of stimulative and sedative music on systolic blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate in premature infants. Journal of Music Therapy, 1994, 31: 105-118.
Abstract: The effects of stimulating and sedating music were determined
for heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure of premature
infants in an intensive care nursery. The results indicate that
calming and stabilizing effect of sedating music might help to
reduce the use of sedative drugs in infants on ventilators and
reduce the incidence of respiratory problems.
(B) Indicates a book, which can be obtained from the publisher
or through a library. Other publications are from journals and
should be available through a public or college library for nominal
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