Music for the Brain

This article helps you discover the many benefits of music for the development of your little one's brain.

By Anil Srinivasan

Music for the Brain


Music has been in existence since ancient times as evidenced by the vedic chants before the sacred fires and the echoes of the Gregorian chants in the cold European monasteries. Music pours from nature. Who has not appreciated the chirping of birds rising with the sun, or the pitter-patter of raindrops? The sixteenth century Renaissance thinkers even believed in the ancient philosophical concept, the music of the spheres, which treats the proportions in the movements of celestial bodies like the sun, moon, and planets as a form of music.

To be alive and human is to hear the sound of music everywhere, and this aesthetic experience can take us to a higher reality. It has a definite impact on children, in more ways than we think.

Music and young children

Child development experts like Dr S Anandalakshmi have long recommended that parents play classical music in the background, even when children are involved in activities like quietly playing alone or when infants are just lying in the crib.

The effect of music upon children is tangible. Take the example of little Ananya, my friend’s daughter, who is five years old. Her eyes light up the moment she sees the music teacher walk in. In her dreams, she often sees images in colour and people playing instruments, and she has started vocalizing a desire to be a musician. Her parents confirm that music stops her in her tracks, calms her and makes her smile like nothing else does. Just three months into taking music classes at school, Ananya has transformed into a melody-laden butterfly with ever-expanding wings of curiosity.

Music in the classroom

Dr Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori system of education, believes that music should be introduced to children in the classroom. To help children appreciate music, the Montessori curriculum incorporates songs and singing games. As a child’s greatest musical asset is her own voice, Dr Montessori realized that singing games allowed shy children to participate and sing along.

Among specially designed materials are the famous Montessori bells, used in classrooms to attune the ear to understand musical sounds. A child has to pair off the bells that produce the same sound, and with practice, he gradually learns about musical notes, and how to arrange the bells in gradation.

According to Maureen Harris, music specialist at American Montessori Society, New York, “Music making and learning are matched to the social development of the child, with emphasis placed on development of character and integration of the ‘whole’ personality.”

She also says that, “Through developmentally appropriate musical experiences from birth, the child learns to cultivate a natural desire to learn and blossom into a caring and productive citizen of society.”

Music for children with special needs

Music has a calming effect on children with ADHD, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Autistic children can even be made to sleep by playing music regularly.

Prof. Nigel Osborne, musician and researcher in the applied neuroscience of music and the creative arts, was in Chennai recently. At a seminar, he played a video clip in which his team is conducting a music session with children having neurological difficulties at Vidya Sagar, an NGO that works with children and young adults with cerebral palsy. Though most of the children are shown listening intently and shaking the tambourine in their hands, one boy watches with a smile without much participation. However, when the music stops and it appears as if the session is over, he shakes the tambourine with glee.

“Music enriches these children’s lives and gives them something new to look forward to. I once worked with a traumatized child who would neither look at people nor speak to them. But he actually sang and danced after a music session. The children I worked with definitely experienced change after their exposure to music,” says Osborne.


 

The subliminal impact of music on children

In a research exercise that I conducted with renowned Professor Bernd Schmitt as a PhD student at Columbia University about seven years ago, we discovered interesting facts about music and its subliminal influence. We experimented with 3 different groups of children.

Group 1, no music was played: We made a group of a hundred and forty American-born children perform a simple cognitive task. A set of names was given to these children and we told them to sort these in any manner that they liked. As expected, some of these children sorted the names by alphabetical order (about 40% of the children), while many sorted them by some heuristic (or rule) they thought up (such as Boys vs. Girls, or Popular Names vs. Strange Names). A very small group of children (<10%) sorted these names out by the size of the name (least number of letters first, most number of letters last for e.g., Ada, Mark, Polly, Suzanne, Reginald, Wilhelmina).

Group 2, ambient background music was played in ascending sequence: We then repeated the exercise of sorting names with an experimental group (consisting of an equal number of children) but with ambient music being played in the background. The volume was kept at a level similar to those found in supermarkets or department stores – soft and muted but audible. The music was designed especially for the experiment. A group of notes was played in an ascending sequence (low notes to high notes) as in a major scale. The sorting task was repeated. This time, we got similar results to the earlier set. Significantly different was the quantum of children who sorted the names by size of the name (arranged in ascending order of size). This proportion rose to 15% from the <10% in the first experiment. Set of Notes Played: C(1) – D(2) – E(3) – F(4) – G(5) – A(6) – B(7) – C(8) (On a piano keyboard, start with the middle C and work upwards).

Group 3, specific music was played in ascending sequence with a progressive increase in the spaces between the notes: The final group tested was exposed to music with a twist. This time the notes played in the background track were spaced in such a way that they were not only in an ascending sequence, but the space between each successive note also increased with the ascending scale. Thus, Set of Notes Played: C(1) – E(3) – A(6) – G(12) – G(19) etc. Hence the space between the first two set of notes is 2, next two set of notes is 3, then 6, then 7 and so on.

The results were astounding. Nearly all (about 94%) of those surveyed did the sorting according to the size of the names!

This was astonishing for two reasons. One, we had ensured that the music was played in a building where ambient music was being played anyway. Thus, the children did not pay any particular attention to the music as such. Two, we were hoping to see a marginal increase and not such a dramatic rise as shown below:

If ambient music can have such an effect on the way the mind thinks and processes information, imagine the effect that a structured approach to musical education can have on your child’s ability to perceive and make sense of the world around him. Thus, music is a potent catalyst in the development of a child’s overall intelligence and mental ability.

Effect of structured music classes on the brain

After further research, we could clearly define the effect that music has on a gamut of skill sets ranging from memory enhancement to logical reasoning and decision-making ability as illustrated in the table on the adjacent page. The table explains the number of classes (with the structured lesson plans) that children in the various age groups need, to develop these skill sets.

For example, as the table shows, a one-and-a-half-year-old child will need 3 total units or classes of music per week to develop his cognitive skills to the desired level (low) as indicated by his age. But an eight-and-a-half-year-old child will need at least 5 units or classes of music per week to develop his cognitive skills to the desired level (high) as appropriate to his age.

Music to our ears

Music in the classroom is a magical tool waiting to unlock a child’s potential. It is the greatest blessing we have, gifted from one generation to another.

However, we are in the throes of an artistic crisis now. While music has experienced a resurgence following the onset of competition-based reality shows, its vital importance in early childhood development and cognitive efficacy is sadly undermined in today’s classrooms. In an environment where training for engineering courses or medical courses begins as early as the sixth grade, the lack of any direct correlation between musical activity and academic potential or promise has relegated music to a subject for hobby-hour, an occupation for a rainy day and most of all, a luxury. As a performer, it is easy for me to conclude that music is the panacea for all ills and needs. As fantastic as that particular claim may sound, you will be surprised as to how close that actually comes to the truth!


Anil Srinivasan is a pianist and founder of ‘Rhapsody Music education’, promoting music in schools.