This is a fabulous little animated video. It’s as if it was designed specifically for my students. I’ve been send all kinds of articles to my parents through the years. This just makes it more fun and easier to digest. Thanks Ted Ed!
As an independent, private music teacher, I am always being forwarded studies and news articles about the benefits of music lessons. It definitely feels good to be on the right side of this issue! And it certainly validates my profession.
This weekend’s Wall Street Journal has an article, A Musical Fix for U.S. Schools, which puts music instruction higher than all other so called non-academic activities.
“Kids in sports also showed increased ambition, while those in theater and dance expressed more optimism. But when it came to core academic skills, the study’s authors found, the impact of music training was much stronger.”
This seems to be one-upping another article this week in the NY Times about how Exercise Boosts Young Brains.
Breaking the day into different activities just makes sense. You need a break from just constant focus of core curriculum of Science, Technology, English and Math. But what the WSJ article says is it’s not just a break, but actually a boost. And the most potent boost comes from learning, playing and practicing an instrument, so much so, that it could be a simple cure-all for all the ills of the school system. At a calculated cost of $187/student per year, a typical large suburban school system could turn itself around.
The list of benefits of musical training include:
I highly recommend reading the complete article.
My suburban school system provided me with an excellent music education.
I give daily thanks to the late great Andy Blackett and Peter Brasch, Sal Piccolo, Charles Weinsoff, Helen Roberts, Diane Greenspan. I never thought I would be doing this but now it all makes sense.
What is the most important factor in a student? Many people would say it’s talent, or effort, or persistence, or luck or some combination of these.
Behind all of this is something that is more important – the proper mindset. Recent research (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) has shown that there are two different mindsets among students:
1) intelligence as a fixed, static trait or you got what you got
2) intelligence is a changeable, flowing trait, in other words: you can learn whatever you put focus and effort to
Most of my music students do have a growth mindset, but may need some extra encouragement. To do this I need to use a specific way of communicating.
Researchers have discovered that if you just praise the intelligence of the child, there are negative consequences. So just being positive and saying “Good job!” is actually detrimental and has a backlash because given a new challenge, the child would rather not participate (quit) in order to “save face” and live up to the expected standard. Rather if the child was praised for their effort, the next harder challenge was met with more effort.
Almost daily I have a student who complains
“That’s too hard! I want to just stay on the same song!”
Here’s some things I say and you can too in your classroom, studio or with your own children. Though I’ve made these specific to music, you can apply a variation of these to any subject.
By setting the proper belief system in place at an early age, we can guide our children to future success in music, and in life.
For more information, read this excellent article from Prinicipal Leadership, a magazine aimed at school principals.
For a free download on Growth Mindset Framing. You’ll have to register but it’s free and you can download a pdf.
I’m looking forward to our upcoming Spring Music Recital on June 7 at 2pm. It will be in our usual location, the auditorium of the Park Slope branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
We have a great program of diverse music from folk classics to Suzuki standards to pop songs from Katy Perry, Imagine Dragons, One Republic, jazz standards in the style of Frank Sinatra and film and Broadway soundtracks all played by kids ages 5 to 13.
The show is free and open to the public. You can see previous recital videos here.
I’m also offering music lessons via internet (Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts) over the summer and into the Fall too. This may be a good opportunity to continue practicing whilst at Grandma’s house.
You can now book a private lesson with me via SKYPE or FACETIME or GOOGLE HANGOUTS from anywhere in the world.
I can work with you and/or your child on piano, guitar, ukulele, songwriting, or music production via the comfort of your own home.
What you will need:
When you register, please let me know what instrument you are registering for and if you have had any experience at all and the age of the student. After booking I’ll contact you via email to schedule a time. Please note, I am in New York City time zone so will not give lessons at 3am EST. See below.
Summer is usually the best opportunity for new students to join my private music studio. Once you are on my roster, if the fit is good for teacher, student and parents, I will make every effort to accommodate you on the school year schedule. I am incredibly grateful to have so many students who stay with me for years. This summer, I will be offering private and limited group lessons beginning July 7. Music lessons:
You can sign up for once per week or even 4 times per week for a super accelerated learning experience. The summer is a time for renewal, recharging and having some fun along with learning. With that in mind, I’ve designed a few summer fun-tastic ways to learn basics of music, ukulele, guitar, piano or songwriting. These music lessons are usually private, but I can accommodate small groups. See below.
If you are interested, you can register here. I will discuss specific scheduling with you.
You can now take virtual lessons with me using Skype or FaceTime or Google Hangouts.
We had our 10th recital hosted by the Brooklyn Public Library and it was a resounding success! Such a wonderful diversity of music, talent and focus. All my students pulled it together and presented their best.
I’ve posted all the videos on our YouTube Channel.
This is very popular with my guitar students. It’s funny, I have recently acquired a bunch of young girl rockers who have switched or added guitar to their musical instrument repertoire and this is one of those songs that resonates with everyone.
It seems the new style of songwriting is to use the same harmonic structure, meaning the chords, over and over again. The only difference between the verses and choruses are in melody, rhythm or the buildup in the production.
I use stick notation with all my students and it really helps them understand rhythms separate from pitch. Here’s a good overview of how I present rhythm using stick notation.
Enjoy the hand drawn sheet music! Notice the CAPO is on the 3rd fret if you want to stay in the same key as the original recording.
Here’s a video of Melina performing at our Winter Recital on January 25, 2014.
All parents want the best for their child and after-school is an opportunity for extra enrichment beyond the classroom.
Yesterday, The Atlantic published an article, After-School Activities Make Educational Inequality Even Worse. The author, Hilary Levey Friedman, interviewed and followed 95 middle-class families over 16 months who were involved in soccer, dance and competitive chess. She identifies 5 skills she believes separates middle/upper class children from less fortunate children and which she calls Competitive Kid Capital. There’s some overlap here with Angela Lee Duckworth’s concept of Grit which I discussed previously. Though Friedman didn’t profile music students, these all overlay very well with music instruction and recitals.
1 – The Importance of Winning – In music there is not necessarily winning and losing, but if you didn’t get the right notes, or you didn’t perform as well as you did at home, then, there’s a sense of a loss. All of my students are pretty hard graders on themselves when asked, “How did you do on that piece?”
2 – Learning from Loss - this is resiliency and happens everyday you practice at your instrument. You’re going to make mistakes, but what matters is what you do next.
3 – Time Management – Music is a time based language- you need to keep the beat – events happen over time. Having good rhythm and timing to correctly and effective communicate a beautiful piece of music is one aspect but so is the management of practice time over weeks and months for a big recital. Will you be prepared? This is life!
4- Adaptability – you need to go with the flow – some days you’ll feel different and you’ll play the music different because of that. But also making small corrections everyday on technical issues is a way of adapting.
5 – Grace Under Pressure - performing in front of a roomful of strangers can be a very intimidating experience. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I’ve seen some of my students blossom over the years and these skills will be useful in the classroom, the job, the board room, anywhere. I wrote this article Why Music Recitals Are Like Life Skills 101 a few years ago.
See the full article at the Atlantic.
And here’s another article that caught my eye.
Last weekend’s New York Times had a brief article about the Long Term Benefits of Music Instruction.
A new study reports that older adults who took lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster than those who did not.
“It didn’t matter what instrument you played, it just mattered that you played,” said Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and an author of the study, which appears in The Journal of Neuroscience.
What’s incredible is that this is 30-40 years later! And these people may never have continued on an instrument after their childhood music lessons.
See the full story here.
This past Sunday, there was a NY Times Article on the importance of music education in everyone’s life. I feel like it was written specifically for music teachers! The author interviewed some of the top performers in numerous and diverse industries and has found a surprising number had deep musical training from Condoleeza Rice to Allan Greenspan to Paula Zhan to James Wolfensohn to Steven Spielberg to Woody Allen and Paul Allen.
See the full article, Is Music The Key To Success at NYTimes.com
We had a lovely Parents Curriculum Meeting this morning. It was wonderful to see so many of you. Here’s a summary of what we covered.
My philosophy of teaching music is to impart an enjoyment, appreciation and ability to create and perform music while having fun.
I don’t expect all my students to become professional musicians, but I do expect them to gain life-long skills such as
Tips For Parents of Students: How To Guarantee Success At Home
There has been an explosion in ways to access music anywhere and anytime. Here’s a few of my favorites.
Recording technology has taken massive leaps in the last 10 years. Here’s a few we talked about.
- GarageBand – Apple’s truly-amazing, easy to use multi-track recording software with virtual instruments and it’s less than $5! For iPad, iPhone and Mac (this one is more like $30)
– LogicPro – this is what I use to create film scores, songs, and most of my music production. This is professional music software and it only costs $200. That’s an incredible difference from when I was a kid!
Professional music engravers use Finale or Sibelius, both have student options:
We had some ideas suggested at the meeting.
Some of my music students will naturally wrestle with a new challenge. They’ll go over and over a specific passage until they have a break-through. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue as they doggedly work out the solution in front of me. Sweet victory! These kids have tenacity a.k.a., grit!
And then there’s the other kind. They sit placidly and wait for the answers to be handed to them. If I present something new, they almost always says, “I don’t understand, it’s too hard!” and then give up immediately. When I do give them the answer, they’ll do it once and then say I got it, but then want to move on to something “new.” As I tell all my students, “repetition is the mother of skill,” – Tony Robbins.
The ones who have the tenacity or “grit” as they now call it, have been shown to be the ones who become better students, not only in music but also in almost every aspect of life. There have been studies showing that later success in life is better predicted by emotional qualities such as “grit” than academic scores.
It seems that if we as parents and educators can instill more “grittiness” in our kids, then they’ll be better prepared for the future.
So how does Music Lessons develop this quality called grit?
Any repeated practice can be used for building grit. Whether it’s music or sports or juggling.
Isn’t it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do, “practice?” – George Carlin
It’s about having the long view in mind. It’s the delayed gratification, the working towards a goal and the reward of reaching a high level skill.
The most time-consuming part of my job as a private music teacher is in the selection of music and individualized lessons in which I determine the order of presenting new conceptual ideas to each student. By paying close attention to where each student is in their technical and conceptual development as a musician, I can then place the next “stepping stone” just at the right moment. To far ahead, and I risk losing them – even the tenacious ones. To close, and they’ll complain that it’s too easy or even boring.
By showing each student a path, individualized to their current state, I can guide them forward on this long road to success and life!
Update October 3, 2013
“You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline. It is built on a foundation of learning the discipline, which is what your music teacher was requiring of you.”
I still have some availability for my Fun With Music Games for Learning Theory classes. There is no prior experience necessary (for the beginner class) and it’s guaranteed to make music learning fun and memorable.
You know kids love games! They instantly perk up at the slightest mention. I so wish my music teachers knew about making games out of music theory. It’s the fastest, funnest and most enjoyable way to learn some very abstract concepts.
In my private music lessons, I always use a game for the theory stuff. Usually it’s just me and your child.
This summer, I’ve dedicated 2 afternoons for Music Games days – Tuesdays for beginners and Thursdays for advanced. This will let us enjoy the fun of a group playing the games – and learning at the same time. These classes are open to my current students as well as new ones who may have never even played an instrument. No matter, it will be fun for all.
I still have a few openings for both Beginner and Advanced. Please note these are small groups of 6 students, so it will be fun for all!
Tuesday Beginners – 4pm to 5:15pm ($45/each student/class)
July 9, 16, 23, 30 and Aug 6
Thursday Advanced – 4pm to 5:15pm ($45/each student/class)
July 11, 18, 25 and Aug 1, 8
Please contact me know if you are interested as soon as possible.
By Andrew Ingkavet
With all of my students, I stress the importance of memorizing their pieces, especially for performance at a recital. Here’s some of the reasons why.
How many times did Tiger Woods hit a golf ball before ever entering a competition? Apparently he was already golfing at age 2 when he made an appearance on the Merv Griffin show with his Dad. He turned professional at age 21 after winning many competitions along the way. That’s 19 years and probably 30,000 to 40,000 hours of practice! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the theory that it takes an applied 10,000 hours of practice to mastery in any field. No wonder Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer that ever lived! He’s simply played 3 or 4 times much as anyone else before he even turned pro!
Now, I’m not demanding 8 hour practice days for my students, but five minutes the day before the lesson is just not going to cut it. It’s unfair to the student who is going to sound awful and not enjoy the wonderful process and sense of accomplishment of learning a song to a masterful level.
As we use our muscles to achieve the production of sound, we need to train them to move in specific ways. Fluidity can only be achieved by repetition. By consciously practicing the repeated motions at the same time being mindful of proper alignment of back, wrists, hands, we can create smooth, fluid motions that create beautiful sounds without repetitive stress injuries.
Practicing small bits at a slow speed can produce incredible, exponential results. When pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the scene as a young man, his flawless technique stunned the world, as did his ingenious interpretations of Bach.
The bits of music phrases teach re-usable pieces of the fabric of music. Just like a recipe book or a code pattern that can be re-used in many projects, future songs will surely employ similar melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Music performance, composing and listening becomes easier as we progress. This is in fact the basic concept of object orient programming for computers. By designing a library of re-usable components, programmers can quickly put together new projects by cobbling together pre-build elements. Learning a later song is easier because the old one had similar patterns. And then, creating variations is now an option.
The famous actor Spencer Tracy was once quoted,
“Know your lines…and don’t bump into the furniture.”
You could say the same of music. Know the notes.
How can you make the music your own without knowing it at a deep subconscious level.
When I was briefly an actor, I took a wonderful class in
the Meisner technique. The basic exercise was called the Repetition technique. It consisted of 2 or more actors on a bare stage with minimum set props. It was improvisatory in that each would only repeat what the other said until there was a natural impulse to say something else. What was amazing was that the inane conversation became full or emotion and life immediately as the words were not hindering the emotion. It’s the same thing in music. But, we need to know our parts. Of course, in jazz, improvisation is the raison d’etre, but there is still an agreed-upon structure.
We need to get to the very heart of emotion in the music, and the only way is to memorize, internalize, and interpret as our own. To know the music fully.
To make your music tell a story, you need to have a physical comfort level with it. You can’t NOT know your parts. Otherwise it’s like the actor who doesn’t know his lines…you don’t believe them.
Instrumental Music is extremely abstract. Pop and folk songs with lyrics provide a narrative focus. But pure instrumental music can benefit in having some kind of narrative in that it can bring a piece to life. Make up a storyline for your piece! Sometimes this is relatively easy as the music is dramatic and narrative by nature. Disney realized how Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice was perfect in that it told the story. Take a look.
I’ve been astounded by the difference in performance by some of my youngest students when they add a storyline to their piece. What’s even more amazing is that 6 year stories are all pretty much the same! But the music sparkles!
Having a mind full of pieces to perform at a moment’s notice is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes one feel like a truly accomplished musician. And, you never know when your Aunt Harriet is going to pop over with her friends and ask you to play “something sweet.”
So how does memory work? Scientists still know only a fraction of how the brain works, but we’re learning more everyday. There is still so much research still to be done.
So far, it seems that there are some generally agreed-upon concepts.
Encoding – getting the information into your memory. Of course, the information needs to be right from the start. Garbage in does equal garbage out.
Storage – There’s short term and long term. It seems we are similar to computers in that we have temporary space for short term and commonly used information. If we don’t use it, we lose it, unless we consciously store it in an organized way.
Retrieval- Getting the right information out when you want it is possibly the trickiest. Many scientist believe that the human mind never forgets anything, it’s just difficult to retrieve on command. But, repeated retrieval places the keys to a specific memory in a prominent location. So if you want to remember where you put your keys, try saying it aloud when you put them down. And, practicing your piece on your instrument at repeated intervals is like oiling the doors to that memory closet.
In a famous study done by George Miller at Princeton University they discovered that humans can memorize up to 7 discreet bits of information, plus or minus 2. But chunking this into groups greatly increases the amount that could be stored and retrieved easily. We can apply this to music memorization.
To start memorizing, I suggest with a small chunk or part, perhaps even as little as 3 to 4 notes. The younger the student, the less notes. As they learn, we can go to the next chunk, and after mastering and memorizing that, we group those two chunks together. By continuing to add to the memory in small groups, and then synthesizing those into a larger whole, the entire piece can be memorized quickly so that a piece with several pages can be played from memory easily.
Some common breakpoints would be first measure, then second measure, then group them together. Then do the next 2 measures that way before you group together the entire first stave. Then A section can be memorized as contrasted to B section, etc.
An extremely effective way of learning a new piece is by listening to an existing recording. This is, of course, the bedrock of the Suzuki program of music instruction.
At higher levels, this may influence the styling of the performance, but that’s why we listen to great performances! Better to mimic the masters. You can also record yourself playing the piece slowly to listen to it over and over again.
Actors learning lines often write and re-write their lines without punctuation, like a long run on sentence. Why no punctation? By learning the words as raw material, they can add their own punctation depending on the emotion required for the scene. We can do the same for music, though the punctuation is usually dictated by the composer in terms of tempo, dynamics and accents, etc. By copying the music to staff paper, another method of input has been created both visual, kinesthetic and even aural through mental memory of the sounds. As a composer, I’ve gained invaluable details and nuances by just copying pieces of music. The physical act of copying does something that internalizes into the mind and body. It’s why the great painters all learned by copying the masters at the Louvre.
Another technique to memorize is by relying on the auditory, and kinesthetic only. By blindfolding, or closing one’s eyes, or even turning out the lights, the musician can practice
without relying on the visual and play by touch and ear. This will also make the student realize quickly if they are not committing to a fingering pattern as they will be unable to play it blind. And, some of the best musicians in the world were literally blind.
I’ve heard of stories where prisoners of war without access to their instruments practice completely in their mind, visualizing the experience completely, hearing it in their mind’s ear and seeing themselves in the mind’s eye performing their piece perfectly. These people return from their isolation playing better than before! I’ve told a few of my students about this and you can see in this video, my student Mitra is actually visualizing herself right before she performs onstage. Wonderful!
My son Alejandro has been working on a difficult piece by Bach and he recently told me that every night before he goes to sleep, he visualizes himself performing this piece. Wow! I don’t even recall telling him to do this!
There’s a lot of wonder at how some of our ancestors could remember stories to pass on to the next generation. One was was through the use of rhythm and sound in the form of poetry, a kind of word music. By linking the sounds with the imagery in the stories, whole long passages could be told and memorized. By singing the melodies of the piece you are trying to memorize, you are using these very techniques and internalizing the music. Glenn Gould would sing all his parts incessantly to the point where he never stopped singing even when performing in public or recording his piano pieces.
There’s also the technique called the Memory Palace, where using the memory of a physical place you know intimately such as your own home, you could “store” information in specific locations. So, to remember things in a specific order, you could then mentally walk through your palace and retrieve the information. I found this book where it taught me all the names of every play by Shakespeare in the proper order, and lo and behold, it works! Now I should really do this for something more useful like song lyrics as I’m terrible at remembering them.
Now the greatest thing is that these memorization and learning skills are applicable and transferrable to the rest of your life, forever! You can use them to learn anything like languages, careers, work stuff, school, research, anything! You are basically learning to operate your mind. How to store information, keep it fresh, retrieve it when you need it and then use it to combine, build, mix, remix and synthesize all you want. And to think you got all this from memorizing your little recital piece!
We had a lovely Winter Recital on Saturday at the Park Slope Library here in Brooklyn, NY. Though there was a scheduling mix-up and we almost had to cancel, it all turned out well in the end. Thanks much to all at the Brooklyn Public Library especially Leane and John who worked it out.
I’ve posted a playlist of all the videos on our YouTube channel, but here’s a few below.
I had this idea to have more public performances for my students which was well received by all the parents. This afternoon, we had our first Music Salon, hosted by Maziar & Michelle, and it went wonderfully! It was a casual festive event with wine and snacks and a roaring fire with a great 13 foot Christmas tree. Just lovely. And we had a sing-along of some Christmas favorites. The best part was that some of my shyest and quietest students got up to play several times and all did a great job.
Here’s some photos from the event. And many many thanks to Maziar and Michelle for being such gracious hosts.
I read this great article about how music lessons became a great discipline for success in life. What really resonated with me was the fact that none of the writer’s 4 daughters were natural “prodigies” and had to struggle with daily music practice. I too did not just fall into playing piano and guitar and alto saxophone. But once I found my favorite teacher(s) and repertoire it started to flow easier.
Flash-forward 20 years from that first Suzuki lesson, and three of my four kids have put away their violins in favor of other pursuits. But those early lessons stuck. All four have had the courage to embrace long-term, large-scale projects outside the realm of their formal academic training. All of them credit their Suzuki days for ingraining in them the habit of patient practice that has seen them through the long, slow development of mastery.
Sure, talent matters. Talent is the difference between good art and great art, between proficiency and virtuosity. But talent alone is rarely enough to get by.
See the whole article here at Philly.com
Teaching young kids to read music is quite a challenge. I approach through a long process of micro-steps. It’s the reverse of peeling an onion. It’s a layering technique of building up from tiny kernels of understanding, expanding outwards.
The first lessons are always performance focused – get them excited about playing a song! It’s fun and within reach to play a song in 5 minutes! That is so awesome!
Then over the course of many lessons, we explore basic concepts of music theory through a series of games. One of these “games” is learning solfeggio (Italian pronunciation), also known as solfège (French pronunciation). This is the system of pitches with words that was created in the eleventh century by a Benedictine monk, Guido de Arezzo.
To make it easier, I always look for ways to engage other learning modalities besides visual or aural. In this case, an Englishman by the name of John Curwen did this work in the 1800s by creating a system of hand signs to go with the solfège system. This engages the brain to have another way of remembering these pitches. Kids love it and it certainly is fun!
Another great educator (and composer) the Hungarian Zoltan Kodàly took these hand signs and made it easier by associating a height with each sign to correlate the rising of the pitch with each syllable.
In my lessons, I teach my students using 2 hands to make it even easier as it balances both left brain and right brain. Plus it’s easier and more fun! Did I mention that fun is important?
I created a printout for my students that features…them(!) – to help remember these.
Hopefully we’ll all be singing and signing at our next recital.
Here’s a video from another teacher (who also produces wonderful educational tools which I use and heartily recommend.)
After internalizing these pitches and then connecting them with notes on the staff, reading music becomes connected with the aural, visual and kinesthetic. It has become much easier to move into any standard method book after a few weeks of this.
I’ve started making videos of songs I’m teaching my students as so many of them are visual learners and have the technology to view this at home. This video is not meant to be a step by step instruction but a reinforcement/memory aid for after the lesson when practicing at home.
It seems every year there’s a new study that confirms the positive benefits of music lessons in early childhood. This one has some great findings:
From the NY Times Well Blog:
When children learn to play a musical instrument, they strengthen a range of auditory skills. Recent studies suggest that these benefits extend all through life, at least for those who continue to be engaged with music.
But a study published last month is the first to show that music lessons in childhood may lead to changes in the brain that persist years after the lessons stop.
Researchers at Northwestern University recorded the auditory brainstem responses of college students — that is to say, their electrical brain waves — in response to complex sounds. The group of students who reported musical training in childhood had more robust responses — their brains were better able to pick out essential elements, like pitch, in the complex sounds when they were tested. And this was true even if the lessons had ended years ago.
Indeed, scientists are puzzling out the connections between musical training in childhood and language-based learning — for instance, reading. Learning to play an instrument may confer some unexpected benefits, recent studies suggest.
We aren’t talking here about the “Mozart effect,” the claim that listening to classical music can improve people’s performance on tests. Instead, these are studies of the effects of active engagement and discipline. This kind of musical training improves the brain’s ability to discern the components of sound — the pitch, the timing and the timbre.
“To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections,” said Professor Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. “Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”
Skill in appreciating the subtle qualities of sound, even against a complicated and noisy background, turns out to be important not just for a child learning to understand speech and written language, but also for an elderly person struggling with hearing loss.
In a study of those who do keep playing, published this summer, researchers found that as musicians age, they experience the same decline in peripheral hearing, the functioning of the nerves in their ears, as nonmusicians. But older musicians preserve the brain functions, the central auditory processing skills that can help you understand speech against the background of a noisy environment.
“We often refer to the ‘cocktail party’ problem — or imagine going to a restaurant where a lot of people are talking,” said Dr. Claude Alain, assistant director of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and one of the authors of the study. “The older adults who are musically trained perform better on speech in noise tests — it involves the brain rather than the peripheral hearing system.”
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, are approaching the soundscape from a different point of view, studying the genetics of absolute, or perfect, pitch, that ability to identify any tone. Dr. Jane Gitschier, a professor of medicine and pediatrics who directs the study there, and her colleagues are trying to tease out both the genetics and the effects of early training.
“The immediate question we’ve been trying to get to is what are the variants in people’s genomes that could predispose an individual to have absolute pitch,” she said. “The hypothesis, further, is that those variants will then manifest as absolute pitch with the input of early musical training.”
Indeed, almost everyone who qualifies as having truly absolute pitch turns out to have had musical training in childhood (you can take the test and volunteer for the study at http://perfectpitch.ucsf.edu/study/).
Alexandra Parbery-Clark, a doctoral candidate in Dr. Kraus’s lab and one of the authors of a paper published this year on auditory working memory and music, was originally trained as a concert pianist. Her desire to go back to graduate school and study the brain, she told me, grew out of teaching at a French school for musically talented children, and observing the ways that musical training affected other kinds of learning.
“If you get a kid who is maybe 3 or 4 years old and you’re teaching them to attend, they’re not only working on their auditory skills but also working on their attention skills and their memory skills — which can translate into scholastic learning,” she said.
Now Ms. Parbery-Clark and her colleagues can look at recordings of the brain’s electrical detection of sounds, and they can see the musically trained brains producing different — and stronger — responses. “Now I have more proof, tangible proof, music is really doing something,” she told me. “One of my lab mates can look at the computer and say, ‘Oh, you’re recording from a musician!’ ”
Many of the researchers in this area are themselves musicians interested in the plasticity of the brain and the effects of musical education on brain waves, which mirror the stimulus sounds. “This is a response that actually reflects the acoustic elements of sound that we know carry meaning,” Professor Kraus said.
There’s a fascination — and even a certain heady delight — in learning what the brain can do, and in drawing out the many effects of the combination of stimulation, application, practice and auditory exercise that musical education provides. But the researchers all caution that there is no one best way to apply these findings.
Different instruments, different teaching methods, different regimens — families need to find what appeals to the individual child and what works for the family, since a big piece of this should be about pleasure and mastery. Children should enjoy themselves, and their lessons. Parents need to care about music, not slot it in as a therapeutic tool.
“We want music to be recognized for what it can be in a person’s life, not necessarily, ‘Oh, we want you to have better cognitive skills, so we’re going to put you in music,’ ” Ms. Parbery-Clark said. “Music is great, music is fantastic, music is social — let them enjoy it for what it really is.”