Thursday, July 7, 2011

Music Makes You Smarter ?????

In another blog,  JNM-Teachers Corner, I am spending time each week going over specific portions of the RITMMAP study because of its value to practitioners in finding, and applying those portions of it that were most helpful in extending the language learning capabilities of the students involved.   Before going into that study in depth here however, I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not believe that teaching the arts is ever justified by the 'instrumental' effect that it has on other learning.
 It makes no more sense to teach music because it enhances reading than it does to teach math to help a person learn social studies.  If you want a person to learn and understand social studies,  you teach them social studies. You teach music, drama, art, and dance because it helps people learn music, drama, art and dance.  The fact that there are collateral benefits from learning the arts is a bonus, and people need to be aware of that.  But the BONUS is not the PURPOSE of teaching the arts.  The arts need to be taught because they reflect an essential part of human nature, and are of great value in and of themselves.  In addition, they connect each person to a deeper part of themselves that is shared by all humanity.

That being said however, the correlation of the arts, and in this case, music (and the RITMMAP study),  with increased abilities in other learning areas has been, and is being proven over and over again.  This  as I said, is called 'instrumental' learning and there is ample proof of its occurrence.  The Ritmmap study is a small, but important component of this aspect of the power of the arts in education.  Understood correctly, this power to positively effect student learning  could be used to great advantage by the educational community.  Unfortunately, due to budgets, bias, and myopia, this is typically not the case.   I want to spend some time dealing with an aspect of misunderstanding that muddies the water when talking about, in this case, the effect of music education.

One obstacle to helping people understand the benefits of music education in my estimation is the  misapplication and miss-understanding of the phrase 'Music makes you smarter'???.   Every part of that phrase is misleading, and it turns off anyone who is not particularly appreciative or sympathetic towards music.  It is also unwisely used as a club by well-intentioned, but mis-guided music advocates. Music makes you smarter'??? - what is meant by that? Does it mean the 'elevator music' that surrounds us in malls, department stores, and everywhere we go will make people smarter? If so, - its not working.  What about listening to a favorite popular  mp3, or classical music, or jazz.  Does that make you smarter.  I've talked at length with Dr. Gordon Shaw, the lead researcher in the study that became known as 'The Mozart Effect'.  I think I'm characterizing him correctly when I say that the huge popular success of the phrase 'Mozart Effect', was one of the biggest setbacks to the understanding of his work  that could have possibly occurred.  Dr. Shaws research at the time showed that listening to about 10 minutes of ONE specific composition of Mozart, the Double Piano Sonata in D, K448, resulted in what may be described as a 'heightened awareness' in the listener for about another 10 minutes.  Interestingly, that heightened awareness was negated if music was played during that second 10 minutes.  That is all the research showed. Contrary to all of the hype that came to be associated with the Mozart Effect about classical music improving grades or 'music making you smarter', that was not at all what the research was about.  Dr. Shaw's research team tested thousands of pieces of music, and only one, the Double Piano Sonata by Mozart, K448,  was shown to have any measurable effect.  As I said, that effect heightened a persons attention or focus for about 10 minutes, and the only way that resultant 10 minutes would make a person smarter was if they applied themselves to learning something of value during that time.  Dr. Shaw's later work focused on  the process of learning music over time, by giving piano lessons to children, and then measuring the correlating  improvements in math scores that resulted.  I'll have more to say about that later.  

Music makes you smarter???  The next part of that phrase is just wrong.  Music, or anything else can't MAKE a person do anything, if what is meant by that is to force someone to do something against their will.  As a successful teacher for many years, I know full well how wrong this conception is.  It's the old 'lead a horse to water, but can't make him drink' adage. You can't make a person do anything against their will for any length of time, and have anything but a temporary effect.  Of course you can cause compliance for the moment by coercion, but once the fear of that coercion wears off,  so does the compliance.  I have never talked to a person who was MADE to take piano lessons, or dance lessons, or any kind of lessons that liked it or stayed with it for that reason. To progress in any endeavor, a person has to apply themselves to it.  And application takes motivation, and motivation takes many forms, especially in education.  Click here for some of them. (You'll need to view the Presentation).  To become smarter, you have to apply yourself, and if you don't apply yourself, - you won't.  Music's not going to help.  That happens to be a convenient sort of capsulation of Dr. Shaw's continued work with music and the spatial temporal approach to learning math. The continued application of musical effort in the form of piano lessons in children did indeed seem to have a measurable effect on certain kinds of intelligence.  More about the resultant program from that work can be found here

Music makes you smarter??? - Finally, what is smarter?  Howard Gardner opened up a pantheon of possibilities when he proposed that intelligence (smarts!) was something that came in all sorts of shapes and sizes.   Michael Jordan was incredibly smart kinesthetically.  South-sea islanders who could not do a single math problem, but could navigate for hundreds of miles in the open ocean with nothing but the stars to guide them were brilliant in a different kind of way.  Some people were smart with numbers and math.  Some people were smart socially, or intrapersonally.  Some people were smart musically, or temporal spatially.  Gardner's book 'Frames of Mind' called into question  the prevailing stereotypes of intelligence and led other researchers to question, investigate, and discover more and multiple meanings of the term intelligence.  Daniel Goleman introduced us to Emotional Intelligence, and additional understandings were explored.  Neurological studies and  advanced imaging techniques have led to huge advances in 'brain-based learning' which lead to even more possibilities.

So - do music and the arts make you smarter?  Based on the above discussion,  there are obviously multiple separate and unique answers to that question that are correct. Do the arts improve musical intelligence, or inter-personnel - or intra-personal skills, or self-regulation, or executive skills   I suppose that one of the answers to the question could depend on which type of intelligence you are addressing. What I do know is that music, and art, and drama, and dance, when combined with a content-rich, whole-child approach to education, and taught by highly qualified instructors does make indeed make students smarter.  I also know that integrating the arts with the regular school curriculum is a sure,  efficient and cost-effective way  to turn around our rapidly declining educational system. How do I know? Here is a link to a video that I included when I started blogging that you might want to watch now.   Its about school MS-223 in New York last year I believe.  MS-223 was rated one of the most violent and lowest testing intermediate schools in the city when it was taken over by a new administration, with new priorities and a new vision for education.  MS-223, went  from a 10% literacy rate to a 60% rate, and from one of the most violent schools in the city, to one of the least.  A self-proclaimed reason for the success of the school was the full integration of the arts with the rest of the curriculum.  The success of the program is the result of a top-down valuing of the arts at every level, and with every other subject taught in the school.  The story is staggering because it is so successful, so obvious, and so ignored by leaders and policy makers that are making decisions that fund and drive our our educational systems - and are eliminating our arts programs today.

Enough for now
Ron Zell

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