"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Music in the Early Grades

My mother had always regarded me as either tone deaf or severely challenged with pitch. Music, however, is so much more than just hitting the right notes. There is timing, there is rhythm, and hearing is one activity the brain depends on. I really wish I had more music training when I was in elementary school. Music in the early grades in Philippine public schools is currently part of Music, Arts, Physical Education, Health lumped together as MAPEH, so students probably go through some music instruction for thirty minutes once every four days. Unfortunately, thirty minutes a week may not be enough for musical training to be fully beneficial.

Nina Kraus, a professor at Northwestern University, has been working on how training in music affects the brain. In a special issue of Hearing Research, Kraus and her co-editors wrote:
"...It is worth pointing out that music is not only deeply linked to the auditory system but that it also engages almost every other neural system and cognitive function: motor, multisensory, memory, attention, and emotion are all part and parcel of music. Music thus essentially engages the totality of the nervous system, posing a challenge to understanding but also providing an opportunity to deepen our knowledge of the entire system...."
The fact that musicians do need working memory offers a glimpse at how music training can benefit learning. In May of this year, Simon Makin of Scientific American described Kraus' research in an article, "Music Lessons Combat Poverty's Effect on the Brain. Music lessons may help close the socioeconomic gap in reading ability": 
Kraus's team tested the auditory abilities of teenagers aged 14 or 15, grouped by socioeconomic status (as indexed by their mother's level of education, a commonly used surrogate measure). The researchers recorded the kids' brain waves with EEG as they listened to a repeated syllable against soft background sound and when they heard nothing. They found that children of mothers with a lower education had noisier, weaker and more variable neural activity in response to sound and greater activity in the absence of sound. The children also scored lower on tests of reading and working memory.
Contrary to what my mother thinks, no child is hopeless when it comes to music. Recent research by Kraus shows that even with just one year of instruction composed of two one-hour music classes per week, children can be taught to keep a beat:
Above copied from Slater J, Tierney A, Kraus N (2013) At-Risk Elementary School Children with One Year of Classroom Music Instruction Are Better at Keeping a Beat. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77250. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077250
This study is continuing as it investigates transfer effects of musical training on other areas such as language skills and development. A preview of results from this ongoing research effort has been recently shared by Take Away:
"After just one year of music lessons, the reading scores of 9- and 10-year-old students from low-income neighborhoods held steady, while the scores of their peers, who didn't study an instrument, dipped. 
That's the finding of a new study from Northwestern University. The teamed with an organization called The Harmony Project to see how learning music impacts a student's academic performance."
We may not all be musicians by nature, but we could all be by nurture, and as an added bonus, it even helps us in our other subjects....






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