Understanding the reasons why music should be a core subject in our school system is just not enough. Music is able to help shape the so-called “whole person” and schools carry part of the responsibility to make this possible. However, before we work towards understanding, maintaining, sustaining and propelling forward the brain’s potential, we should not begin to talk about the “whole person”. Nevertheless, the brain (who is just one among other systems forming the “whole person”: body, mind, conscious, unconscious, etc.) is the organ responsible of information processing: learning, reading, thinking, speech, emotions, planned muscle movement, vision, hearing and other senses. (Johns Hopkins Medicine) 1 Therefore, in terms of educating individuals, schools play an essential role in the development of the brain, so does music. That is the reason why schools should use music resourcefulness to their advantage, without simplifying the values and advantages of music-making in the classroom.
1. The Importance of Music to The Healthy Functioning Human Brain – Both Academically and Professionally; And The Enhancement of Executive Functioning Abilities Due to Being Musically Trained
The way people look on the outside is not necessarily predictive of what it is really happening in their brains when engaging with music. From the outside, music makers might look focused, relaxed, calmed, and, in some cases, emotionless, making the precise and practiced movements seem effortless as they create music. However, from the inside, says Dr. Anita Collins 2, “there are fireworks going through their brains.” Research done by Dr. Collins shows that the activity of playing a musical instrument requires processing large amounts of information simultaneously, engaging different parts of the brain at once: visual, auditory, and motor cortexes. Music also allows the engagement of the brain’s corpus callosum in connecting information between the left and right hemisphere at an incredibly fast speed. While listening to music engages the brain in very interesting activities, playing a musical instrument is the equivalent of a complete brain workout, says Dr. Collins. This suggests that playing a musical instrument challenges the brain to multitask, making the individual more sensitive to details, planning, strategizing and/or enabling the ability to focus for longer periods of time in a daily life environment. Playing a musical instrument also creates a more competent individual who can more effectively perform critical thinking and solve problems in both professional and academic settings as well as excel when “performing executive functions”, proved in a research done by the Neuropsychologist Nadine Gaab 3. This does not mean all brains react the same way after being musically trained; there could be some exceptions. That is why research usually argues in favor of where the major evidence points at.
“In addition to being able to discern different tone patterns and groupings, new motor skills must be learned and coordinated in order to play the instrument correctly. These new learnings cause profound and seemingly permanent changes in the brain, and certain cerebral structures are larger in musicians than in non-musicians”, says David Sousa 4, a former superintendent, educational consultant and the author of How the Brain Learns. So, why acquiring musical skills would influence other higher brain functions (executive functions)? Neuropsychologist Aniruddh D. Patel 5 has developed a theory he calls the OPERA hypothesis, in which each letter stands for its definition. The “O” stands for overlap. The basic idea is that there is an anatomical overlap in the brain networks that process an acoustic feature used in music. The “P” stands for precision of information processing within the networks related with music. “E” stands for emotion; positive emotions are evoked within these brain networks when engaging with musical activity. “R” stands for repetition of musical activity engaged within these brain networks, and “A” stands for attention of musical activity associated with repetition. When these criteria meet, the brain’s structure as a function of experience, also known as “brain plasticity”, (Society of Neuroscience) 6 is challenged to change, causing positive and lasting effects when performing executive functions.
2. After understanding the importance of music for our children. How does music need to fit into an effective educational system for the development of the “whole person”?
Education is the solution to almost every societal problem. Preparing children to be successful is as essential as making them smarter, which, I think – if planned carefully – music can certainly do. Music has an advantage that is barely being used in our educational system today: its resourcefulness. Music can easily be approached from many different angles including mathematics, physics, statistics, sciences, literature, history, etc., in order to pursue the expansions of boundaries and secure the understanding of different topics with something we can all relate to, while having fun with the use of music knowledge and sound. This can be done by utilizing the Constructivism approach of learning to produce subject-combined projects as extracurricular activities, challenging the student’s content understanding and creativity. For example: Assume a student chooses to combine two subjects, music and mathematics, for the development of this extracurricular project, and calls it “The Importance of Math When Notating Music”. In order to be successful the student will have to find common ground between these two subjects, challenging his understanding of the content of both subjects. A possible common ground topic between music and math that also fits into the title “The Importance of Math When Notating Music” could be “analyzing the mathematical subdivisions of beats depending on key signatures”. In this case, the student will provide a full analysis of the topic before challenging his/her creativity by producing the outcome of the project. The outcome could be the creation of a new game, with the purpose of involving his/her peers/classmates in a thoughtful, original, fun, educational and entertaining activity. The structure and rules of this game (if any) will depend on the student’s creativity.
Music classrooms focus on making music, and the concept of music-making compliments the constructivism approach of learning – as a “hands-on experience”. (Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning.) 7. The constructivism approach of teaching music is the reason why music was so important to me during my high school years – music was one of the very few things I could actually materialize into something and produce an outcome, rather than being a passive listener and then temporarily memorize information to pass a test. My experience with music during those years shaped the person I am today. Music did not only made me happy by allowing me to express myself through a musical instrument, it made me realize that whatever I decided to do with my future, it was going to have something to do with music. As of today, the reason why I am striving to become a music teacher is to enrich, inspire and motivate students; as well as help them realize how important they are and how much they can contribute to the world we all live in, the same way music once helped me do the same. On one hand, I would love my students to become life-long music makers, regardless if they decide to pursue a future career in music or not. On the other hand, I would want them to enjoy the process of making music and awake their curiousness of music principles and the world of music. Moreover, (as the constructivism approach suggests) I would like my students to learn with “hands on experience” so that they can construct their own knowledge not for a class, but for themselves. And, last but not least, as a music teacher I want to enjoy the results of my work represented in quality concerts that families, staffs and general audiences will enjoy.
The approach of Constructivism implies that students should literally put their hands on what they are learning in order to create their own ideas, knowledge and understanding of the world/subject being taught. Then, reflecting upon those gained experiences while creating some sort of outcome. In my experience, learning music through a constructivist approach taught me much more than just music. It taught me social and communication skills (between many other values and skills, creating confidence in my believes and myself as well as dramatically increasing my participation) since the classroom was created based on the exchange of ideas.
Therefore, knowing how to negotiate my point of view with others to evaluate my contributions in a socially acceptable manner was a skill I had to learn. In the process of developing those skills (among others) is how I began to develop my “whole person”. According to The Reciprocity Foundation’s website 8 “A Whole Person approach involves looking deeply into a person’s mind, heart and spirit and seeing them as a Whole Human Being—a person with the desire to realize their full potential, to make a contribution to the world and to be loved.”
Furthermore, the reason I suggest the production of these projects as extracurricular activities is for them not to interfere with class activities, procedures, content, values, etc.
Nevertheless, the process of combining different subjects with music while creating these projects, encourages smartness as we develop the so called “whole person.”
- How the brain works. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/neurology_neurosurgery/centers_clinics/brain_tumor/about-brain-tumors/how-the-brain-works.html
- Collins, Dr. Anita Marie. 2012. Bigger, better brains: neuroscience, music education and the pre-service early childhood and primary (elementary) generalist teacher, PhD thesis. Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b5089935
- Hicks, George. (2014). How Playing Music Affects The Developing Brain. Wbur’s Commonhealth Report and Reality. Retrieved from http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2014/07/music-language-brain
- Suosa, David. Neuroscience research is revealing the impressive impact of arts instruction on students’ cognitive, social and emotional development. AASA. Retrieved from http://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=7378
- Petel, Aniruddh D. (2011). Why would musical training benefit the neural encoding of speech? The OPERA hypothesis. Frontiers Psychology. Retrieved from http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00142/full
- (2012). What is brain plasticity, and can it help relieve psychiatric or degenerative brain disorders?. BrainFacts.org. Retrieved from http://www.brainfacts.org/about-neuroscience/ask-an-expert/articles/2012/what-is-brain-plasticity
- What is Constructivism?, Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. Concept to Classroom. Retrieved from http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/
- Our whole person approach. The Reciprocity Foundation, transforming youth from within. Retrieved from http://www.reciprocityfoundation.org/about/whole-person-approach/
About the Author
RICARDO TAVERAS is a pianist and guitarist. He studied at the National Conservatory of Music of the Dominican Republic and is now a music education student at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Taveras has received newspaper accolades, being the first Dominican descendent to attend the International Summer Conference of the University of Graz in Austria. There, he presented his research project “Lack of Education As a Social Problem.” Taveras began teaching music at La Casa de Don Pedro’s Cultural Arts Academy in Newark, NJ. Currently, he is the Assistant Director of the music education group Stringing with Angela. Additionally, Taveras is the Arts Education Director for the after school program Learn, Laugh and Lead.
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