Executive functions: Why study music, part III

Most of us have more to do than time to do it.  We juggle family and job responsibilities, friends, household management, social media, errands, plus a great deal more.  And for those of us who are musicians, we’re always trying to find practice time at our instrument.   How well we’re able to manage the competing demands in our lives and actually get things done depends on a set of cognitive processes under the umbrella term of executive function.

Good executive function (EF) makes it possible for us to manage ourselves and our resources – to prioritize, stay focused on the task at hand, manage our time, think before acting, be flexible and creative when the unexpected occurs, and maintain some semblance of emotional control when someone challenges us and we may feel like striking back in an inappropriate way.

Good executive function has been found to predict school readiness and success in school at all grade levels, even more than IQ.  And significantly for this series of posts about “why study music,” numerous studies have shown that learning to play a musical instrument and studying music improves executive functioning not only in children but also in adults.   Continue reading

Music and math: Why study music, part II

Math teachers have often noticed that students who are good in math have studied, or are studying, music.  In the past, it was assumed that the kind of discipline necessary to excel in playing a musical instrument would extend to other academic areas, leading to excellence in those areas as well.  But some researchers looked at the math-music relationship and wondered if something other than discipline may be involved.

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have been fascinated with the relationship between music and mathematics.  Pythagoras (died 500 B.C.) is considered by some to be the founder of both math and music – famous for his theorum on triangles in mathematics, but also for developing the concept of intervals in music  (link from Physics of Music course, George Gibson, University of Connecticut).

The relationship between math and music has been written about by philosophers, poets, scientists, musicians, mathematicians, and others.  Currently, there are dozens of books in print on the subject, ranging from historical perspectives to explorations of acoustical, theoretical, physical, or analytical relationships.

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Why study music, part I

Albert Einstein, at or near the top of anyone’s list of “greatest scientists of the twentieth century,” revolutionized science with his theory of relativity.  And what did he have to say about this discovery?

The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.  My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six.  My new discovery is the result of musical perception.*

According to Einstein’s sister, Maja:  “After playing piano, he would get up saying There, now I’ve got it.  Something in the music would guide his thoughts in new and creative directions.”**

And he told one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, Max Wertheimer (who wrote Productive Thinking, one of the classics about the creative process), that he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but in images, feelings, and even musical architectures.***

It would be difficult to find a more eloquent advocate for the study of music than Einstein.  But all children are not going to be Einsteins, so why study music? Continue reading

A holiday gift that lasts a lifetime

A friend of mine recently asked me to suggest some piano etudes he could give his son for Christmas – something to help improve technique.  His son is an excellent musician – Macro of music score for backgroundwith an advanced degree in oboe from a major music school.  He has recently bought a piano and now wants to become a better pianist.

As I was thinking about composers and music to suggest, I also thought about how many of us take for granted things like music lessons or buying sheet music or scores.  My parents had very little money when I was growing up, but my mother was determined that her children would have piano lessons.  Those early music lessons awakened a lifelong passion for music, which was strengthened by my elementary school music teacher.  Mrs. Clark was a dynamic presence in our daily music classes!  Yes- daily classes.  Music was a regular part of the curriculum, something increasingly rare in elementary schools these days.   She was talented, creative, a visionary, a motivator – she inspired us to want to do our best musically.   And she produced knockout school musical productions that brought the entire community together.  Continue reading

At least we still have music

Cpl. Todd Love

Cpl. Todd Love

In the midst of the depression and hopelessness that engulf millions of us in America today, I feel compelled to write about something that inspires hope – a program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center called MusiCorps. But allow me a couple of paragraphs to get there.

Today the unthinkable has happened and Americans have given the Presidency to a man who has shown disdain for women, minorities, refugees, soldiers, the disabled, the most vulnerable in our society, and even our constitution. Today in America, we awoke to a vastly diminished country in every possible way. We are diminished in any kind of moral standing we may have had in the world, in our collective sense of decency, in our willingness to think rationally and to believe in facts rather than in distortions and outright lies. And as the days and weeks go by, we may also find that we are diminished economically, as the Brits have found following the Brexit vote. Some parts of the world may be laughing at us, but I suspect more are sharing the horror and disbelief felt by millions of Americans.*  But in the words of my friend Ed Kuhn, at least we still have music. And I am not saying that lightly or in any way ironically. Continue reading

Compulsion for music – part II

Throughout her career, Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie has been an intrepid trailblazer.  She is the most well-known percussionist in the world and the first person in musical history to create a career as a full-time percussionist (a field traditionally dominated by men).   At recent count, over 170 percussion works have been written for her, evelyn-glennie1she was the first to perform a percussion concerto at the BBC Proms Concerts, and she led an ensemble of 1000 drummers at the Opening Ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games.  She has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including 3 Grammy Awards, and she was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2007.  But perhaps the most important trailblazing she has done is as a role model for countless numbers of musicians with disabilities because, as you are no doubt aware, Glennie has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12.  (Click on the photo above to hear her in a short percussion montage, and if you are wondering, the first instrument you will see and hear is a waterphone.)   Continue reading