Should everyone be able to make music if we’re hardwired for it?

I thought I had finished writing this post when a fascinating new study appeared in my Inbox, and I simply had to incorporate it.  Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered that, for several months after birth, infants can recognize a melody that they have heard in utero.  In a study of 24 women conducted during the final trimester of pregnancy, half of the women played Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to their fetuses five days a week for the last few weeks of their pregnancies, half did not.  (Yes, the researchers really used Twinkle, Twinkle.)  The brains of the babies who had heard Twinkle in utero reacted more strongly than the control group to the melody up to four months after birth.  There have been other studies showing that the fetus reacts to music and language, but I think this is the first that tracked how long fetal memories remain in the brain.  So what might this mean?

We all grow up hearing language – in some households, for many hours a day.  By the time most children enter first grade, they know how to speak in complete sentences and express complete thoughts.  They have a vocabulary of 5000 words or more.  They have a fairly good command of the language by ear without knowing the rules of syntax and grammar.  When they are introduced to letters and words, they have a template in the brain for the sound of language, for phrases, for words – a template to which they can attach the spelling of a particular word.   No one would consider trying to teach a young child to read when he is barely able to speak.

What if we grew up hearing music to the same extent that we hear language?  Pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim grew up in a household with two parents who were both piano teachers, and he has said that everyone he met played the piano and everyone who came to the house made music.  So playing the piano was a natural part of his life as a child and a natural form of human expression – music was in the air all the time.  He grew up hearing music, began piano lessons with his mother at the age of five, and by the time he was eleven, was playing with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Scientists concluded some time ago that our brains are hardwired for language.  In the last post I wrote about recent research that shows a wide range of musical abilities in newborns, indicating that a capacity for making music may be innate.  And now we know that music heard by the fetus is retained in memory for several months after birth.  Since it appears that we are hardwired for music as well as for language, what would happen if we approached the learning of music in the same manner that we approach learning a language?

Up until about the mid-nineteenth century, students of music learned primarily by ear.  There were, of course, scales and arpeggios to practice, but beginners often learned tunes by rote, imitating a teacher, or reconstructing a melody that had been internalized by repeated hearings.

But advances in printing changed that.  Once it was possible to mass-produce method books and books of exercises, the aural tradition of teaching music disappeared (or at least faded considerably), and in its place came one teaching method after another – almost all of them emphasizing proportionality of note values (whole notes, then half notes, quarter notes, etc.) and pitches learned according to where they are on this strange construct that we call the musical staff.  Learning music by learning notation largely replaced learning by ear.  It’s rather bizarre when you think about it.   That’s the equivalent of trying to learn a foreign language by studying the alphabet and how words look without ever having heard the sound of the language – or trying to learn to play tennis just by studying the rules, without every seeing the game.

In spite of the fact that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all learned first by ear and it certainly worked well for them, there has still been an ongoing debate for decades about whether musical notation should be taught in the early stages of learning, or whether children need to have a sense of sound first so that they have a representation in their brain to which they can attach the symbols.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) was a Swiss educator who strongly believed that concepts should be taught through direct experience before introducing names or symbols – that children should learn to sing before learning the names of notes or how they are written.  America’s first public school music teacher, Lowell Mason (1792-1872), was influenced by Pestalozzi’s ideas, and advocated the idea that children should experience music before learning to read notation.

Shin’ichi Suzuki introduced the Suzuki Method after WWII.  Everyone is familiar with the concept, which is that children learn to play (usually the violin, but also other strings and piano) by ear, with notation added later.  The method also relies on listening to a lot of music, both at home and at concerts.  Less-well known is the fact that Suzuki created this method after struggling to learn German.  He noticed that children had no difficulty learning their own language by the age of 5 or 6 because they heard it all the time.  He reasoned that, if they were also immersed in music and learned to hear it the way they heard language, every child could attain some level of musical achievement.

Almost every child becomes proficient at speaking his native language, even if he does not become a gifted writer or public speaker in that language.  Might not all children become equally proficient to some degree in music, even if they don’t become a professional musician?

There are many current proponents of the sound before sign approach to teaching music.  Ed Gordon is perhaps one of the most well-known.  He recommends that students develop an baby playing drumextensive aural vocabulary of tonal and rhythmic patterns before notation is ever introduced.  But in spite of the decades (even centuries) of evidence that children need to have a sound template in their heads first before learning notation, many children’s first introduction to music is through notation.  We try to teach children musical notation when they have no template in the brain for music – before they are comfortable and familiar with singing, with moving to music, with forming rhythmic or melodic patterns.

Imagine if those babies we talked about at the beginning of this post continued hearing music on a daily basis.  Perhaps if children from an early age were taught to sing, to move, to experience music before trying to learn the language of music, their hardwiring would have the opportunity to develop and we would have a lot more people making music in the world.   They wouldn’t necessarily be a Daniel Barenboim, but making music for pleasure would be a part of more people’s lives.

And, if you are thinking “Well, there really are people who are tone-deaf, who can’t carry a tune.”   That’s true.  Amusia, or tone-deafness, is a disorder that affects the processing of pitch, and it can happen due to brain damage, or it can be congenital.  But true amusia affects a very small percentage of people.  Most people who consider themselves tone-deaf simply haven’t had enough exposure to music at an early age.

2 thoughts on “Should everyone be able to make music if we’re hardwired for it?

  1. Karen

    WOW. This information is amazing. My mother has always (jokingly) said my love of music came from being surrounded by it while I was in the womb. I guess she was more correct than she realized! With parents as musicians, my whole life has been music oriented. I can’t live without it! I am going to share this post with them!

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