Presenting The Case For Music

Whilst music is under pressure both in state and private education, contemporary science is increasingly discovering the vital educational importance of music in lifelong learning. Here Professor Paul Robertson provides an overview of current research and offers compelling arguments for an increase in music making in the classroom.

Many traditional and ancient civilisations placed music at the very heart of their philosophy, culture and education. The ancient Greeks, whose social and scientific philosophy has so influenced our own, considered music an integral and universal paradigm for both cosmic events and personal activities.

Such music modelling, based on the physics of sound and the observation of sound frequencies, gave rise to the notion of a harmony of the spheres in which planetary motions and conjunctions directly relate to specific music pitches and scales. (Interestingly, contemporary computer-generated mathematic computations show remarkable congruencies between planetary movement and tonal musical relationships).

Later followers of Platonic theory applied and developed these cosmologically inspired musical principles into such universally accepted periodicities as the seven days of the week (the steps of the major scale) and the division of white light into a spectrum of seven colours. The seven muses and seven ages of man etc. almost certainly also reflect these same musical principles.

In such spiritually inspired systems, the seven step system combined with the other fundamental numerical principle of the trinity is universally considered as having special significance, hence the triad Father, Son and Holy Ghost in Christianity. Rajas, Tamas and Satvic energies in Hinduism etc., etc. In western music this tri-fold principle manifests as the musical 'accidentals' - sharps, flats and naturals. This combination of energies in the form of interrelated pitch patterns make up our modulating musical system. Further numerical application of this frequency system also allows for the exploration of the Octave into the twelve semi-tone steps of the chromatic scale.

This principle also finds its way into our common currency, as months of the year, hours on the clock, number of disciples as well as signs of the zodiac etc.

Through such major figures as Kepler and Newton, musical systems continued to inform our astronomical history whilst the artists and architects of the Renaissance also drew heavily on musical Platonism in forming the aesthetics and abiding principles of the Renaissance. Closer to home and nearer in history even Harrison, the renowned clockmaker, applied musical mathematical principles involving the tempering of pitch to the intricacies of energy loss within his prize winning clock mechanism.

This very brief survey of the history of musical formulations may indicate just how pervasive musical models are to our culture. It is true to say that, both consciously and unconsciously, music informs our world view and musical structures underlie many of our aesthetic and scientific paradigms.

The contemporary view of music and development

Just as music forms a fundamental part of our earliest social organisation, so we are discovering that musical response and awareness is involved in our earliest individual development.

Early development

Extensive research shows that even within the womb musical (i.e. pitched) tones are recognised and familiarised by the unborn child. Such information is therefore significantly at play in our earliest pre-cognitive neurological development. Trehub and others have shown that within weeks of birth very young infants can process and discriminate complex musical tasks.

Such universal gifts are no accident of nature but rather a vital species survival skill enabling us to recognise and interpret the complex emotional prosodic voice information that underlies speech. Such precocious abilities are also reflected neurologically. Tramo and others have established that the primary auditory areas of the brain (where the kinetic energy of sound is converted into the electro-chemical energies of the brain) show coherent firing patterns when processing concordant intervals - whilst discordant intervals create erratic firing patterns. It is also now further established that all mammals prefer concords. Successful mapping of these preferences and processing patterns are also increasing at more complex levels of brain organisation. This very technical and specialist work is at the cutting edge of science. Some relevant principle findings however can be summarised.

Using E.R.P.'s (measurement of electrical activity in the brain) Besson has shown that all listeners, be they musically skilled or not, show very significant brain response to incongruous 'wrong' notes. However the individual's ability to verbalise or cognitively recognise this information differs according to their degree of training. The essential importance of this study is that all people have intrinsic musical responses.

Tonal music and the raising of intelligence

The ability to infer pattern is, of course, a fundamental part of intelligence. Dr. Frances Rauscher's discovery that patterned tonal music (in this case Mozart) significantly raises spatial IQ. (17%) in non-musical subjects is based on the theory that the neurones in the brain themselves communicate in a way that closely reflects the pitch patterns of repetition and novelty that constitute western classical music.

These findings strongly support the view that musical structures both reflect and alter our neuronal structures and that both passive and active musical activity can be used to make specific neural changes. Indeed without such a high congruence it would be difficult to explain the universal practice of music.

Musical processing builds language skills

I have already indicated the reasons for believing that our musical responses pre-date our verbal competence. Diana Deutsch has shown that subjects make musical inferences relative to electronically treated tri-tone intervals dependent upon where the individual has learnt their mother tongue. (In this experiment there was an overwhelming statistical result showing that English speakers who learnt their language in the Southern Counties 'hear' differently to those whose English was learnt in California).

This then is highly suggestive that 'musical' response not only pre-dates language acquisition but also plays an important role in it.

Tomatis and Suggestopoedia

In this area Alfred Tomatis' work is of prime importance. Through methodical study and meticulous scientific observation Tomatis has proved that an individual's auditory response and tonality of voice reflect and chart their developmental history. Early traumas inevitably leave behind them auditory deficits which can often be corrected or alleviated by a listening programme of specially electronically filtered music which 're-educates' auditory response.

Tomatis has had outstanding success with dyslexic children and in helping various brain-damaged individuals. His method is also much used for language learning where the overtone systems specific to each language can be presented to the student thus maximising acquisition.

Music is also used very effectively for accelerated learning (particularly of language) by the methods of Suggestopoedia. This well established teaching method is widely used in continental Europe and Scandinavia, where enlightened music-based educational methods such as Kodaly, Steiner, Colour-Strings etc. are the accepted norm. Most of these systems re-inforce learning synaesthetically by combining sound, movement, colour etc.

Mind/Brain models in education - learning from brain damage.

Howard Gardiner's seminal work proposes that we are each differently gifted in domains of skill, such as mathematical, verbal, spatial, musical etc., each of which is associated with relatively discreet neurological systems. Effective education must recognise and utilise these different individual tendencies and use them to create supportive and creative opportunities.

A mass of evidence from brain-damaged children also reinforces this view. When considering early brain damage it is important to bear in mind that the human brain develops sequentially and in stages, with each successive stage normally dependent on the previous ones. Many syndromes such as Downs, Cerebral Palsy and Autism whilst very different in their causes and giving rise to different handicaps, do reflect gross interruptions of the developmental path. Subsequent compensations and development are not just incalculably valuable for the affected individuals and their carers but also reveal vital clues as to the nature of brain function and potential for us all.

Similarly certain very autistic individuals develop extraordinary musical skills which gradually allow them to increase verbal and even emotional communication. (Tony de Blois and others:- Idiot Savant). This process, which can be most moving for those involved does powerfully illustrate the power of music in higher-skill learning.

To illustrate - Professor George Odam mentions a case history that closely involves him. This young man of 15 has Down's Syndrome - like many such individuals he is highly musical but limited academically. In fact this young man was really suffering at school because he could not grasp the concept of mathematical division. This very real problem for teachers and pupil was put in a constructive light when Professor Odam pointed out that this pupil could creditably perform a Beethoven piano sonata and was therefore already computing divisions both of time (the complex musical rhythms) and of space (the divisions of the keys on the keyboard). Therefore the limitation can be seen not as fundamental but of application across domains. The inbuilt capacity for the developing brain to find support and inform itself across different domains of skill and synaesthetically between the senses is of the greatest possible educative importance.

Further clinical support

Children suffering profound brain damage from cerebral palsy may be taught to sing their names and short phrases describing how they feel even whilst they remain unable to speak. (Marienne Berel - New York). It is just because of these ancient anatomical connections that pre-literate societies (and pre-literate children) carry so much of their history in song. The powerful combination of repeated rhythmic tonal patterns supporting words creates a significant and emotive connection between the older 'mammalian' systems of the brain with the more evolutionary recent cognitive ones that process and generate words and logic. (The power of advertising jingles and TV theme tunes to recur unbidden to our minds pays acknowledgement to this).

Clinical observation also shows that where different areas of brain damage (from trauma or stroke) can cause specific deficits such as loss of speech and the ability to generate written language and yet leave musical ability (including the use of written musical notation) intact. This graphically illustrates the multi-domain thesis. So, at one and the same time, musical ability may underlie other cognitive skills and yet not be dependent upon them.

Music - emotion and learning

Damasio and others offer compelling evidence for the importance of emotion in informing and supporting cognitive function. In this area music has a unique role and potential. The relationships between emotion, cognition and learning are currently the area of some most exciting research.

Motion and emotion. Moving the paradigm

Epstein and others have clearly shown the close rhythmic connections between musical rhythms and physiological and neurological pulse. Such congruencies not only form the template of human empathy with all its concomitant gifts of social and group activity but also connect to the rewarding area of gesture, emotion and creative expression. (In his study Music is also shown to materially affect our subjective sense of passing time). Manfred Clynes has superbly shown the exact connection between the physiology of emotional experience and its precise musical counterparts in musical gesture.

This important work allows us to say with authority that learning music teaches emotional management. His work in computing also shows the subtle links between such emotional skills and the development of intelligence itself (including artificial computer intelligence; see Minsky and others).

Clynes' remarkable interactive software 'Superconductor' will prove an invaluable tool for learning, allowing as it does the untrained user to develop their own aesthetic and change at will the emotional expression of the computer performance by means of a simple cursor.

Education - The direct evidence

Educationally we can already state with full confidence that exploring and developing innate musical potential will enhance and improve emotional behaviour (see recent Swiss experiments and the vast archive of music therapy and-social research). Music also improves and educates good social activity - neurologically. This is because of the strong associations of musicality with the limbic system (including Singular gyrus Amygadala etc. known to be involved with emotional response, memory and social ability).

Music will enhance spatial and mathematical skills - in part because all these are strongly right-brain associated. (It is surely significant that classically infant prodigies tend to be in Music, Mathematics or Chess, further implying common neurological features between these skills).

Music can also assist spatial IQ and cognitive function because of the congruence between musical patterns and the patterns of neurological function and the reinforcement of pattern recognition, memory and creativity.

Because of its largely non-verbal emotional rewards music can provide a great intrinsic reward and sense of well-being and self-worth. This is partly because of its focus within the brain's systems but also because it allows a vital means of non-verbal, non-academic self expression and identity. Even the non-educationally disposed can and will strongly identify and define both themselves and their peer groups by means of the music they share.

The same emotional power that draws individuals to the cultural icons of Spice-Girls, Rap and Rock stars, football chants or 'Land of Hope and Glory' at the last night of the Proms - this same vital deeply affective force so glibly used in the advertising and film industry is an available resource to educate, enlighten and raise the lot of all our citizens.

We diminish or neglect this universal gift at a grave risk to ourselves and our children. Human history and even contemporary science is telling us that the Greeks believed Music is fundamental to a full human life. We should begin again to listen.