Music and the Mind
Does exposing children to music
make them more intelligent?
Little baby in the dark house,
You have seen the sun rise.
Why are you crying?
Why are you screaming?
You have disturbed the house god.
Ancient Babylonian Tablet
These are the opening words of one of the world’s earliest recorded lullabies, etched more than 4,000 years ago into the face of a clay tablet about the size of an iPhone. The meaning of the words is incongruously menacing, threatening the child with danger if it doesn’t sleep. And yet the rhythm, the use of repetition and the music has quite the opposite effect. It is deeply calming, hypnotic even.
We find a similar duality in the English classic written thousands of years later, Rock-a-bye Baby, with the capricious tree-tops that the baby’s cradle rocks in. Likewise, the guardian angels in Brahms’ Wiegenlied (Cradle Song), possibly the most famous lullaby of all, conjure the potential for harm. These are simple songs, intended to lull the baby to sleep with pleasant sounds. Built to distract. But is there a deeper purpose? A suggestion that even before a child is able to understand language, it might absorb some greater understanding from music?
Ancient Babylonian Tablet
Brahms Godowsky Lullaby, Piano solo version
Mozart. From a boxwood carving in profile by Posch (1789)
The ‘Mozart effect’
In the modern day, assertions about music’s power to aid intellectual, social and even physical development are never-ending, with many an article painting music as a kind of cognitive steroid – play Mozart to your child before it leaves the womb, the earlier the better, and it will absorb some of the composer’s genius. It all began with a 1993 study by Dr. Frances Rauscher. Her research saw an eight-to-nine point increase in students’ spatial IQ scores after ten minutes of listening to a Mozart sonata, compared to silence or relaxation tapes. However, Rauscher insisted that her findings extended only to spatial-temporal reasoning and not simple intelligence. The ‘boosting’ effect was only temporary, lasting a maximum of 15 minutes. And the subjects were young adults, not children.
But it was too late. The media had already caught wind of the idea. And so, the ‘Mozart effect’ was born. Most people ignored the further tests, which proved a comparable temporary boost in spatial reasoning could be found from listening to Schubert, the pop band Blur and even a Stephen King novel. More damning still, in each experiment, the benefits were short-lived, suggesting that engaging with almost any art form in a serious way might act as a kind of cognitive warm-up session, but offer no prolonged benefits.
“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”
Nevertheless, the more science poked holes in the ‘Mozart effect’, the more firmly the idea gripped the public’s imagination. Ever since Rauscher’s study, parents all over the western world have been dousing their children in Mozart. In 1998, Governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, even proposed setting aside $105,000 to make classical music available to the state’s children.
Then, in 1999, researchers at Nottingham University published a paper which proved that foetuses could not only hear music from the womb, but that listening to music incurred a striking increase in the activity of their brain. More remarkably, the study paved the way for discovering a new means for monitoring foetal brain development. Even if listening to music could not be proven to have lasting effects on human intelligence, its unique power to stir the human mind – even before birth – is one that outlives time and space. But the question remains, to what end?
The Power of Music
What, though, if we took it a step further from simply listening to music and instead learned to play it? In Professor Susan Hallam’s 2014 book, The Power of Music, she argues that actively engaging with an instrument from an early age has positive effects on not only the child’s spatial reasoning, but also their perception skills, language and even numeracy. Cognitive neuroscientist Jessica Grahn, from Western University in Ontario, agrees with Hallam, going so far as to state that you can increase your IQ by up to three points with a year of piano lessons combined with regular practice.
Impact of music on sound, language and memory | Benefits of music
The effects of playing an instrument throughout one’s early years on creativity and social development are even more significant. Hallam’s explanation is simple: “The cerebral cortex self-organises as we engage with different musical activities; skills in these areas may then transfer to other activities if the processes involved are similar.” Increasingly, more and more scientific research supports Hallam’s findings – that cognitive diversity is more effective at preparing an individual for a single, specific endeavour than focusing solely on the endeavour itself. This is true for linguistic processes, numeracy and even sport. If Hallam and Grahn’s research is to be believed, then we can agree that young children, dedicating and engaging themselves with music from an early age, operate in a similar fashion – subconsciously honing a whole host of cognitive processes that can later be transferred to various other aspects of life.
“Music is the universal language of mankind.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
David Epstein, in a recent debate with Malcolm Gladwell, challenged Gladwell’s notion that 10,000 hours can lead to mastery in any skill, emphasising the importance of tangential experience. When asked by Gladwell what he believed the most important value was for young aspiring athletes, Epstein answered: “base abstractions” learned from “diverse experience” that the young athletes might then “mould to new situations through transference of problems”. Not as Gladwell suggests, many hours of practice in the chosen sport itself.
So, what should we make of this debate?
We might not be able to substantiate that listening to music has any tangible, long-term effect on intelligence, or even more generally on cognitive development. But, equally, we must not underestimate the immense power of exposing a child to a diverse range of art, in all its forms, from a very young age. Beyond being entertaining, a distraction, and perfectly suited to sending babies to sleep, music stands – millennia after the first recorded lullaby – as the earliest means we have of communicating with future generations. And whether music makes mankind more intelligent or not, it has fuelled our imagination and thoughts throughout our lives, even before we were born, and ever since we have had the capacity to make it.
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