Using Music to Close the Academic Gap

Stretto Youth Orchestra

There was an article in the Atlantic this week about several long-term studies on how music can impact academics for students in low income schools. While there have been many studies released recently on how music may impact the brain, most of these seem to be short-term studies of small groups in which the authors infer that music is making a difference in brain function based mostly on correlation. These newer studies are long term and the groups in the studies seem well balanced. The schools participating in the studies are seeing very good early results.

Though these studies are far from over, researchers, as well as the parents and teachers of the study subjects, are already noticing a change in the kids who are studying music. Preliminary results suggest that not only does school and community-based music instruction indeed have an impact on brain functioning, but that it could possibly make a significant difference in the academic trajectory of lower-income kids.

This is great news for those kids, and it's also great news for music. These studies are showing scientifically that music is important for a well rounded education. I believe that music is important for cultural reasons — beyond helping students master other subjects, music is important in its own right. However, any study that reinforces the role of music in education is an excellent tool to help get funding and community support for maintaining excellent music programs in our schools.

You can read the article at the Atlantic.

Radiolab Explores Tempo in Beethoven's Music

WNYC's Radiolab is one of my favorite programs. It's hosted by Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, who explore the world around us. In a recent podcast, they discuss the metronome markings in Ludwig van Beethoven's music, which have been quite controversial. They focus on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony since it is so well known. Some performers feel that his markings are too fast, while others take him at his word. The faster you go the more exciting it is. Radiolab wanted to explore how fast is too fast. Here is a quartet from the Brooklyn Philharmonic performing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at 160 beats per minute. Beethoven's marking is at 108, so this is a little silly, but also kind of fun. 

One thing that is left out of the discussion is performance practice and how that has changed over time. Our understanding of the "correct" tempos have come through the filter of the Romantic Era, where bigger is better and therefore slower (and schmaltzier) is often the norm. Early 20th century recordings bear that out, but as we come to realize that classical orchestras were not as large, and that the pieces were performed in smaller halls, performances have become faster. Conductors who are part of the historically informed performance movement, like John Eliot Gardiner, tend to take Beethoven's symphonies as marked; they seem perfectly reasonable and – in my opinion – better served. You can hear the whole "Speedy Beet" episode (18 minutes) at Radiolab's website.

Making Music Together Connects Brains

Science Daily

Here's another article on the way our brains work when we make music. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin have hooked up classical guitarists to electrodes to look at their brain waves and they found some interesting things.

Anyone who has ever played in an orchestra will be familiar with the phenomenon: the impulse for one's own actions does not seem to come from one's own mind alone, but rather seems to be controlled by the coordinated activity of the group. And indeed, interbrain networks do emerge when making music together -- this has now been demonstrated by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The scientists used electrodes to trace the brain waves of guitarists playing in duets. They also observed substantial differences in the musicians' brain activity, depending upon whether musicians were leading or following their companion.

This is fascinating to me. It's a confirmation of a phenomenon I've often felt during performance. Being on the same "wave length" is the difference between a good performance and a bad performance  -- and now we find that is true, literally.

You can read the rest of the article at Science Daily.