About ten years ago, I was startled by a headline that, in essence, said if you wanted a spouse or friend who picked up your most subtle emotional cues, find a musician. Intrigued, I tracked down the research behind the article and discovered the work of Dr. Nina Kraus, Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University.
The Lab was already known at that time for its work on the neurobiology of music and speech perception (see previous post). This particular study found that, not only were musicians better able to process the emotion in sound than non-musicians, but the ability was directly related to the number of years of experience of the musician and the age at which he/she began to study. Continue reading →
Our lives are filled with sound. On average, Americans listen to music for more than 32 hours a week (Nielsen 2017 study). We spend hours in conversation with co-workers, friends and families. We hear the everyday sounds of traffic, appliances in our homes, television, athletic events, pets, and a great deal more. We never think about what our brains do with all of that – sometimes competing – auditory information.
But according to Dr. Nina Kraus, Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University, making sense of sound is one of the most computationally complex tasks we ask our brains to do. Not only is there a staggering amount of information to process (something on the order of 9 million bits of data per second1), we have to process information in microseconds in order to respond if necessary. Continue reading →
It’s been a long time since my last post and this one is a continuation, so if you’re new to this blog, or if you don’t remember the previous post about the importance of learning a musical instrument for developing executive function skills, you may want to re-read it before continuing here.
Briefly, the three key areas of executive function are inhibition (being able to control attention, behavior, and emotions); working memory (important for critical thinking and reasoning); and cognitive flexibility (seeing things from different perspectives – thinking “outside the box”). Reasoning, problem solving and planning are all built on these three key areas of executive function.
And adults and children who have studied music have been shown to have stronger executive function skills. Which brought us to the question at the end of the previous post: did these children and adults gravitate towards studying music because they already had stronger EF skills, or did studying music promote those skills? Another researcher may have the answer.
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 →
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.
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 →