Brain Anatomy and Music
Can Music Really Improve the Mind? The Question of
Recent Publications of Special Interest
There is a widespread belief that early exposure to music increases
the size of brain structures in young children. However, examination
of scientific publications reveals that there are only a very few
studies of brain size and music and these have been conducted only
with adults. The results do support the view that certain regions of
the brain are enlarged in musicians. Although increased relative size
of a part of the brain suggests increased function or competence,
increased function and skill develop and are maintained without any
detectable change in the relative size of brain structures. Thus, the
assumption that increased size of certain regions of the brain is
necessary for achieving a high level of musicianship is not
supported. Therefore, it is not necessary for relative brain size to
be increased in children or adults in order for them to achieve
musical literacy and good performance skills.
MuSICA continually receives requests to help students in their research projects, which we gladly do. Most recently grade school students are undertaking science fair projects about music and behavior. This is the logical extension of a trend that started about four or five years ago in college -- a pronounced upswing in the choice of music, brain and behavior as a topic for term papers. Shortly thereafter, high school and then intermediate school students joined in. While the exact reasons for this belated but welcome concern with music research have not been pinpointed, there are some strong clues. As inquiring students often get their information from newspapers, magazines and TV news, increased media attention to music research seems to be clearly implicated. Findings on child development and the effects of early experience on brain development are usually included in these media accounts of music. This probably fosters the belief that listening to music increases brain development in young children. When ten year olds express this belief, asking only which type of music is best for brain growth, one can hardly escape the conclusion that this assumption has spread widely and penetrated deeply into the public psyche.
One of the themes of these essays concerns the importance of critical thinking about beliefs and claims, by identifying assumptions and by examining their scientific bases. Equally important is the need to consider the implications of any findings. With these goals in mind, lets examine the assumption that early exposure to music increases the development of childrens brains. More specifically, well focus on the size of some "musical" parts of the brain relative to the size of the whole brain.
Studies on Music and Relative Brain Size
This question actually has a very long history. In the nineteenth century, a good deal of thinking and research was concerned with the relationship between the relative size of brain structures and highly developed knowledge and skills. For example, it was thought that painters might have greater development of the visual system of the brain, because they relied on vision so much. For musicians, the auditory system of the brain was the area of interest. As recently as the 1960s and practically up to the present, researchers have studied the brain of Albert Einstein. They have sought possible over-development of some parts of his cerebral cortex, which is the largest brain structure and the region most involved in thinking, reasoning and other complex psychological processes. Investigators hoped to find a clue about the cerebral basis of Einsteins particular genius. For the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, scientists had to rely on direct examination of the brain after death. The results were unclear; no indisputable conclusions could be drawn.
However, the possible relationship between regional brain size, experience and behavioral expertise remains of great interest. Nowadays it is possible to use brain imaging techniques in living people to ask the same question. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can effectively provide accurate pictures of brain structures. Direct measurements of the volume of the whole brain and of selected regions can be made. Given such techniques, what is known about relative brain size and music in children? As of the Spring of 1999, there seem to be no published studies concerning the effects of exposure to music on relative size of brain structures in children.
On the other hand, MRI has been used to study the size of cerebral regions in musicians compared to non-musicians. In 1995, Schlaug, Jäncke, Huang and Steinmetz studied the brains of professional musicians and compared them to the brains of sex and age-matched non-musicians. They focused on auditory regions of the cerebral cortex, an area called the planum temporale (PT). The authors found a difference between the two groups: the PT was relatively larger in the left vs. right hemisphere of musicians than in non-musicians. However, this was not true of all musicians, but was restricted largely to those who had perfect pitch, i.e., who can exactly identify notes by sound. But perfect pitch is not required to achieve musical skill and musicians who have this ability are not better or more accomplished than those who do not. Thus, while the relative size of a key auditory brain structure is greater in some musicians, this seems to be related to perfect pitch rather than to knowledge or accomplishment in music.1
A recent report indicates that the amount of auditory cortex that is responsive to piano tones vs. non-musical tones is larger in musicians compared to non-musicians.2 Moreover, the amount of increase was correlated with the age at which the musicians began to study, i.e., greater the younger the age. Also, perfect pitch was not a factor in these findings.
While the auditory sense is very important in music, the sense of touch is also heavily used by many musicians. For example, string players use the fingers of their left hand intensively, in complex and intricate patterns; the right, bowing-hand involves much less finger movement. Therefore, Elbert, Pantev, Wienbruch, Rockstroh and Taub studied that part of the cerebral cortex which receives sensory input from the fingers.3 They estimated the relative sizes of these regions by measuring tiny changes in magnetic fields caused by responses of brain cells to tactile stimulation of the fingers of the left and right hands. Elbert and co-workers reported that the amount of cortex responsive to stimulation of the fingers of the left hand of string players was greater than for the left hands of control subjects. No differences were found for responses to right hand stimulation in musicians vs. controls, which shows that the cortical effects were probably due to intricate use of the left hand. Of particular interest, the amount of increase in the left hand cortical area was related to the age at which the musician had begun to play; it was greatest in those who started about the age of five and less for those who started as teenagers. This relationship suggests that learning to play a string instrument at an early age produces a relative increase in the size of an involved part of the brain.
Of course, extensive use of the fingers does not merely involve touch sensation but also requires the control and coordination of movements of both hands. Schlaug and colleagues studied the pathways that connect the left and right hemispheres, specifically a structure called the corpus callosum (CC).4 One can think of the CC as an information "superhighway" in the brain, sort of like an Internet access; in this case, the two hemispheres have to continually communicate to coordinate the right and left arms and hands. The authors used MRI to measure the size of the CC; the basic idea is that the greater the information traffic between the two sides of the brain, the larger the number of connections needed. Two groups were studied: musicians (piano or string players who also had considerable skill at the piano) and matched controls. Schlaug et al found that the part of the CC that carries information between the motor centers of the left and right hemispheres was larger in musicians. The greatest effects were for musicians who started playing before the age of seven. This is another example of a positive relationship between early experience and the relative size of a brain structure.
The cerebellum is another part of the brain that is particularly concerned with motor coordination. In a recent brief report, Schlaug and his colleagues measured the volume of the cerebellum compared to the rest of the brain. They reported that although there was no overall difference in the size of brains between musicians and controls, the cerebellum was relatively larger in musicians than in controls.5 They did not report data concerning the age at which music lessons were started.
In summary, only a small number of studies relate the relative size of brain regions to musical accomplishment. Lets grant that the few experiments conducted to date do show that the earlier one starts playing an instrument, the larger is a particular brain structure. But now we should return to the question of how best to think about the findings.
Thinking About Music and Brain Size
Do the findings support the assumption that listening to music increases brain development in infants and young children? The brain anatomy studies to date have studied adults who are musicians and those who are not. So, clearly, there are no direct findings on children. One would have to expose some infants to music in a controlled way and then compare their brain development with that of an appropriate comparison group. This experiment has not yet been done.
Second, the brain anatomy studies with adults concern musicians who are really defined by their ability to perform music, not merely listen to music. Indeed some of the positive findings concern finger use and hand coordination, that is skills involved in performing music, not limited to listening to music. Therefore, when we think about music, we need to distinguish between listening and playing an instrument. At this time, there is not yet evidence that listening to music in infancy increases brain size in adults. It might do so, but until the appropriate studies are conducted, we simply do not know.
Let us now move away from the issue of listening to the issue of performing music. The argument for a musically-induced increase in relative brain size of children rests on the reports that the effects seen in adults are largest when music lessons were started at an early age, in the range of five to seven years old. This is an important finding but we have to realize that it is not conclusive, for several reasons. First, we do not know the age at which brain increases occur; they might appear later in life rather than during childhood. Second, the findings show a correlation, i.e., a relationship, but correlation does not prove causation. Other factors might produce this relationship. For example, the ability to learn to play an instrument at an early age might occur only in children whose brains previously were over-developed in certain areas.6
Another assumption needs to be considered, the implicit belief that behavioral abilities and accomplishments are caused by over-development of certain brain structures. Thus, if one wants to promote an ability, brain hyper-development would be the way to accomplish this goal. This might be true, but it might not be. While the degree of behavioral skill might be related to the larger size of the cerebral cortex in certain regions, we should keep in mind the differences between brain structure and brain function and also the difference between necessity and sufficiency. Even if it turns out that increased size is sufficient to yield increased accomplishment, the reverse is not necessarily true; increased accomplishment need not require increased size. If this were true, and if only early musical experience produced increased relative brain size, then teen-agers and adults could not learn music and achieve high levels of enjoyment and accomplishment. But they do (See "Music, Development, Aging and the Brain: Its Never Too Late for Music", MRN, Spring 1996, III (1)).
So we need to keep an open mind on the subject of brain anatomy and music. We have to realize that research in this field is still at a relatively early stage. While it is understandable that any findings increase media attention, as consumers of information we need to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions and assume that there are simple answers to complex questions. We also need to be patient good science takes time. As for what to do about children and music now, expose them to music and the arts and promote their involvement in a supportive but not overbearing manner. Whether or not gross anatomical changes in the brain will result, they will benefit and so will you.
-- Norman M. Weinberger
1  Schlaug, G., Jäncke, L., Huang, Y., & Steinmetz, H. (1995). In vivo evidence of structural brain asymmetry in musicians. Science, 267:699-701.
2  Pantev, C., Oostenveld, R., Engelien, A., Ross, B., Roberts, L.E. & Hoke, M. (1998). Increased auditory cortical representation. Nature, 392:811-813. Interpretation of the findings has been questioned: see footnote # 6.
3  Elbert, T., Pantev. C., Weinbruch, C., Rockstroh, B., & Taub, E. (1995), Increased cortical representation of the left hand in string players. Science, 270:305-307.
4  Schlaug, G., Jäncke, L., Huang, Y., Staiger, J.F. & Steinmetz, H. (1995). Increased corpus callosum size in musicians. Neuropsychology, 33:1047-1055.
5  Schlaug, G., Lee, L.H.L., Thangaraj, V., Edelman, R.R. & Warach, S. (1998). Macrostructural adaption of the cerebellum in musicians, Society Neuroscience. Abstracts, 24:2118.
6  Monaghan, P., Metcalfe, N.B., Ruxton, G.D. (1998), Does
practice shape the brain. Nature, 394:434 (letters)
There is an increasing interest in the effects of music on the mind, an issue best understood as transfer effects from music to other cognitive domains. A special feature in a major music research journal recently focused on this issue. Several workers were asked to present their perspectives. Although many positive transfer effects have been documented, there was not unanimous agreement. Such contrary dialogue represents a normal and healthy aspect of science. The fact that this question is now taken very seriously is important because it was ignored in the past.
The journal Psychology of Music is published by the Society for Research in Psychology of Music and Music Education. As such, it is a major outlet for new findings and ideas in music research. In 1998 this journal hosted a published "Discussion Note" section in which the issue of musics mental benefits was set forth by Professor Katie Overy of the University of Sheffield, U.K.1 She pointed out that while there is great current interest in the benefits of music, the topic is one of long standing. I present here one of the quotations she provided at the beginning of her article.
"It is an acknowledged fact that, when properly carried out, class-work in music has most certainly the effect of stimulating the mental faculties of those who take part in it, and, as a result, of improving the standard of work in other departments." -- MacPherson, 19222
The words have changed from the 1920s. "Mental faculties" might better be understood as "cognitive processes" and "other departments" can be read as "non-musical academic subjects". But the meaning is clear.
Transfer of Learning
Contemporary approaches to the improvement or facilitation of one cognitive ability or motor skill by prior learning or practice in another area usually refers to "transfer of learning" or simply "transfer effects". This type of cross-task facilitation is thought to be based on similarities between processes that are involved in the original and the recipient or facilitated situation. A common example in motor skill transfer is that learning to ride a bicycle facilitates learning to skate, ski, or other activity which requires learning to maintain balance while moving forward.
Transfer of learning is a fundamental issue in the cognitive and brain sciences. It has a long history and continues to be a topic in education both for cognition and motor skills. A simple search of "transfer of learning" in PsycInfo, the database of the American Psychological Association, turned up 6919 citations. Transfer effects are not limited to motor skills but are very well known for cognitive processes and abilities.3
Some views on Transfer Effects of Music
Dr. Overy provided examples of published effects but did not attempt in her brief introduction to be comprehensive. She cited benefits of music in language and reading skills, spatial and temporal tasks, verbal and quantitative abilities, concentration, attention, memory, and motor coordination. Dr. Overy also asks whether such effects might be highly specific to particular cognitive abilities or reflects facilitation of general cognitive processing.
In the ensuing responses to Dr. Overys lead article, some responses focused on possible brain mechanisms while others emphasized behavioral findings, which Ill focus on here. It is not my purpose to summarize each of the points made by the respondents but rather to note some recurring themes. I suggest that readers consult the brief responses in Psychology of Music4 to fully appreciate this particular dialogue.
Maria Spychiger of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland asked a pointed question. " why does no one even ask whether maths can improve the mind? Or whether language could? Probably, these questions are too silly or strange; everyone knows the answer is yes."
She continues with a clear "yes" for music. Spychiger is the author of a study which showed that children who took a curriculum which increased music instruction at the expense of language and mathematics became better at language and reading but no worse at mathematics than students who had spent more time on these subjects without the additional music instruction. Spychiger pointed out that the transfer effects between music and other subjects was probably specific, as are many other known transfer effects, because they are based on similarities between the two activities. Thus, instead of speaking about "musics" effects, one needs to determine which aspects of music account for which transfer effects. This position heralds the theme that the effects of music cannot be understood unless one specifies which components of the musical experience may be relevant to specific aspects of other tasks or areas. An example is musics facilitation of learning to read. This is believed to result from learning to listen for changes in pitch in music, which is thought to promote the ability to sound out new words.5
The same need for more detailed analysis of the bases for extra-musical effects of music was found in the responses of other participants. For example, Alexandra Lamont of Cambridge University emphasized the fact that music and music lessons are very complex. She notes that not all studies show transfer effects of music and that it is important to understand exactly what are the critical circumstances that yield transfer. Dr. Lamont believes that transfer effects from music to cognition have not yet been sufficiently well-established. She adds, " we may hypothesize that music probably can, and further research will hopefully establish more precisely the unresolved issues of what music and where, when, how and why this might occur."
Janet Mills, who is a Royal Inspector of Schools in the U.K. lauds Spychigers music-emphasis curriculum "...because it questions the educationally unquestionable." She adds, "I have little doubt that music can, under particular circumstances, improve the mind. ... What I am sometimes less certain about is what... leads to this improvement...".
Andrew J. Waters, of University College London, also emphasizes the numerous components of music, the importance of identifying transfer-relevant features of music listening and playing. He also notes that some transfer effects may be directly mediated by music while others may be indirect, such as secondary to a mood change induced by music. Dr. Waters points out that short-term effects of exposure to music are easier to study than are long-term effects and believes the short-term effects must be very robust "...before we can be confident that the whole enterprise will be worthwhile."6
In summary, there is an active dialogue among music educators and research workers on the extent to which music has positive transfer effect to various cognitive abilities and processes. Although there is not agreement on this point, there seems to be agreement that future research should focus on the analysis of the various components both of musical listening and of instrumental performance to identify processes that could have transfer effects to other academic subjects and domains of mental activity. It seems unlikely that much progress will be made by additional demonstrations or failures to demonstrate transfer effects without this information and a theoretical context within which to formulate and test hypotheses.
The expectation of a full understanding of transfer effects at this early stage of research is premature. One ought not to be concerned about the current lack of consensus, because this is a normal part of the scientific enterprise. Rather, we should be delighted that the subject has become important, because it has been largely ignored in the past. We can look forward to exciting developments in the search to fully understand the roles of music in cognitive processes and behavior.
-- N. M. Weinberger
1 Overy, K. (1998). Discussion Note: Can music really "improve" the mind? Psychology of Music, 26:97-99.
2 MacPherson, S. (1922). The Music Education of the Child, London: Williams, p. 13.
3 A detailed bibliography of cognitive transfer effects is beyond the scope of this article. Here is a representative sample of publications. For transfer effects based on using the same type of reasoning see Reeves, L. and Weisberg, R.W. (1994) The role of content and abstract information in analogical transfer. Psychol. Bull., 115: 381-400. For transfer effects involving spatial learning, see McFarland, R.A. and Kennison, R.F. (1988). Asymmetrical effects of music upon spatial-sequential learning. J. Gen. Psychol., 115: 263-272. For transfer effects related to reading and to different levels of reading ability see Benson, N.J., Lovett, M. W. and Kroeber, C. L. (1997). Training and transfer-of-learning effects in disabled and normal readers: Evidence of specific deficits. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 64:343-366. Transfer effects are sufficiently well-documented to permit their use to validate computer models of cognitive processes, e.g., Robins A., (1996). Transfer in cognition. Connection Science: J. Neural Comput., Artif. Intell. & Cog. Res. 8:185-203.
4 The responses to Overys query can be found in Psychology of Music,, 1998, 26, 17-210. I do not provide separate footnotes for the respondents but do identify them in the text.
5 See, e.g., "Music and Cognitive Achievement in Children", MRN, Fall 1994, I(2)
6 Evidence to date suggests that long term effects, e.g., of learning to play a musical instrument, are stronger than short term exposure to music. I trust that Dr. Waters would agree to the importance of studying long-term effects of instrumental music regardless of the strength of short-term passive listening effects.
Mathematical Reasoning is Enhanced by
As reported previously, keyboard training in pre-schoolers facilitates
the ability to reason in spatio-temporal terms compared to a
computer-activity control group (Rauscher et al,
Neurol. Research, 1997, 19, 2-8). This line of research
has now been expanded to investigate the effects of keyboard training
on mathematical concepts and problems that are often difficult to
learn. Graziano, Peterson and Shaw (Neurol. Research, 1999,
21, 139-152) studied second graders who played a
specially-developed Spatial-Temporal Math video game; it included
problems such as "mentally unfolding" a shape ("piece
of paper") along a given axis to correctly match the
"unfolded" shape to one of several forms. In addition, some
students also received four months of keyboard lessons while controls
received English language training for the same length of
time. Students were later tested on their ability to solve problems
involving fractions or deal with proportional problems such as
ratios. Both of the Math game groups scored higher on these math tests
than those who received no special instruction. However, the students
who had keyboard lessons did the best of all. These findings extend
previous results and support the conclusion that musical keyboard
training produces transfer effects that support specific types of
Music Ability is Related to Literacy Skills --
Evidence exists that listening to music can facilitate learning to
read, probably by increasing childrens awareness of speech
sounds, which is important in learning to "sound out" words
(see, e.g., "Music and Cognitive Achievement in
Children ", MRN, Fall 1994, I(2)). Two other
relationships of music to reading have been found by Sheila Douglas
and Peter Willatts of the University of Dundee, Scotland. Writing in
the Journal of Research in Reading (1994, 17, 99-107),
they reported on correlations between musical abilities and reading
achievement. Seventy-eight boys and girls (average age eight years)
were tested on vocablulary, reading, and spelling and also on some of
their musical skills, e.g., ability to detect slight differences among
rhythms. The authors found a significant correlation between rhythm
performance and both reading and spelling. Because correlations alone
do not show a causal relationship, they also ran a small study on the
effects of a six month program of music instruction designed to
develop auditory, visual and motor skills; control students received
instruction designed to develop their discussion skills (e.g.,
descriptive, imaginative and comparative). At the end of six months,
the music students showed a significant improvement in reading
compared to the controls, who did not change. These findings suggest
that music instruction can cause an improvement in reading.
Bryan, T., Sullivan-Burstein, K. & Mathur, S. (1998). The influence of affect on social-information processing. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31:418-426.
Summary: Music is well known to affect emotional state. This study asked how
music might affect social problem solving. Ninety-six seventh grade
students were studied to determine how positive or negative emotion,
induced by music (happy or sad) or by thinking happy thoughts, could
affect solutions to solving a social problem situation. The greatest
number of solutions was produced by the self-induced positive mood
while positive music produced the most embellishments about the test
social situation. The authors suggest that the music may have
Music Perception, Cognition and Behavior
Förster, J. & Strack, F. (1998). Subjective theories about encoding may influence recognition: judgemental regulation in human memory. Social Cognition, 16:78-92.
Summary: Music has many effects on cognitive processes. In this experiment,
the authors asked whether beliefs about musics influences on
learning could actually affect learning and memory. College students
were divided into groups which were told that music facilitates
learning or that it inhibits learning. Then they memorized a word list
in the presence of music. Their later memory for these words was worse
if they believed that music inhibits learning. Thus, the effects of
music on learning can be affected by negative beliefs about its
efficacy in learning. The findings also suggest that positive beliefs
do not themselves increase learning and memory.
Nakada, T., Fujii, Y., Suzuki, K. & Kwee, I.L. (1998). "Musical brain" revealed by high-field (3 Tesla) functional MRI. Neuroreport, 9:3853-3856.
Summary: Particular regions of the cerebral cortex are involved in
language. This experiment asked whether there exist regions of the
brain that are specifically involved in reading a musical score. The
subjects were eight pianists (22-29 years old) proficient at
sight-reading who were bilingual, native Japanese speakers who also
knew English. Their brains were scanned under three conditions: silent
reading a musical score, a text in Japanese and a text in
English. Controls were age-matched individuals who were musically
illiterate. While many areas of the brain were activated in all three
reading conditions, the musicians, but not the controls, showed
activation of a specific area in the right occipital
(visually-related) lobe. The authors believe they have located a brain
region that is specialized for reading musical scores, so that brain
specializations for reading are not limited to language but also
Health and Therapies
Charnetski, C.F. & Brennan, F.X. Jr. (1998). Effect of music and auditory stimuli on secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA). Perceptual Motor Skills, 87:1163-1170.
Summary: Music can relieve stress. The authors asked how music might influence
the immune system. Male and female college students were exposed to
one of four conditions for 30 minutes: tone and clicks; Muzak
("Environmental Music"); comparable radio broadcast;
silence. Immunoglobulin A (IgA), whose levels increase during
increased activity of the immune system, was measured before and after
the treatments. IgA was significantly increased by the Muzak
condition, only. The authors believe that music can strengthen immune
activity and promote health.
Johnson, J. K., Cotman, C.W., Tasaki, C.S. & Shaw, G.L. (1998). Enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning after a Mozart listening condition in Alzheimers disease: a case study. Neurological Research, 20:666-672.
Summary: Music can improve spatial-temporal reasoning in healthy children and adults. This investigation concerned its possible effects in Alzheimers Disease (AD). A set of 78 year old identical twins was studied; one of whom has AD. Spatial-temporal tests, such as matching a "mentally-unfolded" piece of paper to one of several shapes, were administered before and immediately after ten minutes of listening to Mozarts sonata for two pianos in D (K.448), 1930s popular tunes or silence. The AD twin showed higher scores or the Mozart condition but not for silence or popular music. The normal twin was not affected. The authors suggest that music can be used to help understand AD.
To improve readability, each selection includes a brief statement of the
Responding to Attacks on Music Research
The following opinions about music are intended to provoke though, encourage discussion and sometimes even argument, but ultimately to energize and enlarge conceptions and inquiry about music.
Attacks on music research are increasing. This is unfortunate but perhaps expected. For example, in the Fall 1996 issue of MRN this space was devoted to opposition to music research. The following excerpts from that Opinion column, entitled "Purists and Utilitarians" will set the stage for todays comments.
"Recently, I was astonished to learn that many music educators are either disinterested in or even quite negative about certain areas of music research. In particular, some leading figures disdain research on the relationships between music and other aspects of human behavior. For example, they appear to be quite unhappy about studies that investigate the potential beneficial effects of music education on child development and cognition. Why should anyone object to studies that support the hypothesis that music education improves listening skills, reading ability, etc.? [because] such findings can be used to promote music education! This seems bizarre, given that the promotion of music education is a goal of music educators. the argument [seems to be] something like this -- Music should be studied for its own sake, not because of its effects on other aspects of education. Studies that seek such effects undermine this foundational premise. They reduce music education to an adjunct of non-arts subjects that are alleged to be more important. Music and arts education thus become a means to an end rather than an end in themselves."
During the past few years, as both previous research and new findings have been brought to the attention of the public and to school administrators, an expansion of opposition has occurred. More can be expected in the future, until the research critics (whom I labeled "Purists") and the advocates of using both research and the intrinsic merits of music (the "Utilitarians") get together and arrive at some reasonable consensus. That was the hope of the 1996 column.
The increased concern about the possibility that listening and playing music have transfer effects, that is benefit non-musical subjects such as aspects of mathematics and reading, is evident not merely in the number of critics but also in the sources. One of the latest comes from two academic researchers in the field of child development rather than in music education. In an article "Mozart and the S.A.T.'s", in the New York Times during March of this year, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland voiced a strong position against the use of music research to support music education in schools. Their article, cleverly worded, is likely to mislead readers into believing that music education has no "transfer" effects to other subjects or skills. For example, they stated that effects of music listening would require a "magical power." Moreover, the authors set-up and conveniently attacked a straw argument that attributes to music research advocates the ridiculous position that music education should be justified only on the basis of its transfer effects, not at all on its intrinsic merits. I know of no reputable music researcher or educator who holds this position.
additionally, the anti-research attitude of Winner and Hetland is both short-sighted and inherently self-contradictory. The authors seem to be blissfully unaware that a major reason for the widespread interest in the transfer effects of music education is that music programs have been severely reduced or dropped. Consequently, many students are denied the very opportunity to have exactly the type of music experience and knowledge that they, we and countless others advocate. Winner and Hetland state this very well: "Children improve their future lives immeasurably by gaining a deep understanding of its structure and beauty." They add, "This is justification enough for music in our schools." But is it? Obviously not. Would Winner and Hetland rather have no music education or music education justified on several grounds?
Winner and Hetland do have a reasonable concern, which is that music education in schools should not be justified on the basis of poor research. Well, of course! Educational policy decisions should not be based on irresponsible claims, whether promulgated by the media or anyone else. On the other hand, the position that all such research is bad or that any effects must be based on "magical musical powers" is patently ridiculous. Thus, their extreme position is not a satisfactory solution. Instead of adopting a narrow view of music research and attempting to mislead readers by the ploy of inventing an irrational argument and then attributing it to those who disagree with you, there is an appropriate middle-ground. This is to encourage research on music and cognitive, personality and social development while maintaining an open mind. Objective, well-conceived and well-executed research will provide answers.
Recently, the eminent music educator Edwin Gordon, who strongly opposes the use of music research in support of music education, was quoted in the Des Moines Register as concluding about research, "Its hocus pocus." adding "Music should be taught for its own sake and not because it has supernatural powers." Note that the attacks on music research resort to labeling it "magical," "hocus pocus" and "supernatural." Again, another old trick pin a bad label on your opponent and people will assume its true. Naturally for this to work, one has also to studiously avoid systematic analysis of music research studies. And the "Purists" certainly manage to do this as well.
However, there is nothing "magic" about the effects of learning one thing on learning other things. Such transfer effects are well-known in psychology and cognitive sciences and are a completely reasonable, appropriate, legitimate subject for inquiry. What is relatively new in the publics eye is that transfer effects are being reported for music.
Professor Gordon is on solid ground in objecting specifically to the claim that brief passive listening to music in children has a long term effect in raising intelligence. I join him in that objection because there is no evidence of such effects. Actually, there are no such controlled studies. But just who is making this claim? Certainly not any scientists. Perhaps some have confused different sets of findings, such as short term (10 minute) increases in spatial-temporal reasoning in college students and improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning in pre-schoolers who have had extensive keyboard lessons.
Let us reason together. Drop the hyperbole, debaters tricks and superficialities. Isnt the education of our children of paramount importance? Don't we owe it to all students to provide them the very best education, regardless of the reasons? Heres a concluding paragraph from my 1996 column on this subject, a statement we Utilitarians hope will be forthcoming from the Purists and one we offer to all people who are concerned about education.
"We are reasonable and rational people and are always ready and willing to listen to other perspectives. Therefore, we invite you to begin a serious and extended dialogue with us. Together, we should find ways to set and achieve common goals."
Working together is becoming increasingly urgent. Lets do it!
-- N. M. Weinberger
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