Music speaks to our emotional core. It is deeply hardwired in our brains. Can you imagine a world without rhythm and melody? The reason you can’t is that music is a fundamental need for humans. Evidence of music has existed in every culture throughout human history and has, therefore, been established as a fundamental need. It teams with art, religion and vanity and joins the needs of food, clothing, communication, defense, medicine and shelter.
Howard Gardner, author of “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” describes a person who has the ability to perform, compose and appreciate musical patterns, as having musical intelligence. Musical intelligence is inclusive of being able to recognize and compose musical pitches, tones and rhythms. Some people have what we call a talent for music. This talent will often appear in childhood. Schulz’s precocious Schroeder, slumped over his tiny piano, exemplifies a child with a strong natural musical intelligence. Maybe you know a child like him. I have come across several throughout my years of teaching.
However rare the musical genius may be, musical intelligence can be developed and nurtured. It is natural for infants to show musical intelligence. The earliest communications between a baby and his mother form the groundwork for musical intelligence and, in turn, language development. Scientists, such as Trevarthen, at the University of Edinburgh, have found that babies can recognize timing and rhythm. Brain scans have shown that the right brains of newborns light up when listening to classical music. “Motherese,” a universally used singsong mix of exaggerated sounds, is the way adults intuitively speak to babies, especially newborns. Trevarthen calls this “communicative musicality.” The structure, pitch and rhythm of motherese prepare babies for learning their native dialects.
Studies on the brain’s learning behaviors have recently shown evidence of its lighting up under various stimuli. It turns out that music has the ability to stimulate many re- gions of the brain simultaneously. The limbic system is where the brain understands emotions, including pleasure and reward. This is where neuroscientist Stefan Koelsch says music has its greatest effect. This is very promising for treating anxiety and autism, for example.
The educational impact of musical train- ing goes beyond developing musical intelligence, language and the treatment of autism and dyslexia. Musical training actually changes the brain. According to Daniel Levitin, director of the music perception, cognition and expertise laboratory at Mc- Gill University in Montreal, learning to play an instrument is an “ensemble activity.” This activity involves thinking ahead, paying attention, remembering, coordinating movement, and being able to interpret feedback that is constantly coming to the ears and fingers. This enhances what is called executive function. Executive function is responsible for planning, flexibility in cognitive processes, and thinking abstractly. Plus, it enhances higher level thinking skills, learning rules, discerning which actions are appropriate or not, and the ability to ignore one thing and pay attention to something else.
As the holiday season approaches, presenting your child with music lessons and an instrument would be a great gift. Not only would this training develop executive function, it is a whole brain activity, which has been shown to change the nervous system in profound ways. If you do give your children formal lessons with an instrument, I recommend you allow them to choose it. Enable them to try strings, brass, wood- wind and percussion until they find one to their liking. Recorders, flutes, violins, drums, pianos and guitars are great beginning instruments. Be patient as the notes they play, off key and confused at times, begin to synchronize and develop into beautiful music, and let that smile form as your children develop in ways only made possible by your gift.