Sunday, March 15, 2015

GOP Legislators Are Not Scientists. Nor Are They Musicians. Dan Levitin Is Both


Unless you've taken any classes from him at Stanford or McGill, chances are if you know who Dan Levity is, it's because of one of his best-selling books, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, and The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Dan is a a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in music perception and cognition. Although I've known him since the early '80s, this is the first guest post he has done for DWT. -- Howie

Music Education

by Dan Levitin

Howie is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We go back to the San Francisco punk scene in 1981, when he used to come to the Mabuhay Gardens to see my punk band The Mortals (later, we called ourselves Judy Garland). I became his Director of Artists and Repertoire at 415/Columbia Records in 1983 and that began a close friendship that included a standing dinner once a week for many years. Howie taught me more than I can fathom, about music, business, relationships, and politics.

It breaks my heart that his current medical crisis has taken him away from the thing that he loves most in the world, blogging full-time about progressive candidates for DWT. I offer this guest blog to honor him and to help fill the huge void his temporary absence has left.

There is a political issue that does not get much discussed, and that gets lost among the many priorities we have. It is not the intransigent racism that we are still seeing in some parts of the country; unwarranted police brutality; the widening gap between wealth and poverty; the dysfunctional legislative process in congress; or vast indifference to climate change. It's something many agree with but few do much about, even though it has the potential to help us solve all of these problems. I'm talking about arts education in K-12 public schools in general, and music education in particular.

It is no secret that music programs have been cut throughout the U.S., victims of wide-spread budget cuts, tax laws that erode the tax base for schools, and an apathetic voter participation. I grew up in a small dusty rural town in Northern California (where cows grazed on green hills adjacent to our school). This was not a community with a large tax base, but still we had free music starting in 3rd grade, and a room full of district-owned musical instruments that we could take home with us for years at a time. We had private music lessons and ensembles. We did it because it was fun, the way that sports are fun. We didn't know then, but there is an emerging science that now shows that learning music creates biological changes in the brain that improve children's lives and makes them better citizens.

Those are big claims. What is the evidence?

Children who learn to play a musical instrument have an advantage when it comes to reading: they learn to read at an earlier age and at a faster rate. Children who learn to play a musical instrument exhibit fewer behavioral problems, and appear to be more socialized. Most of the evidence so far obtained is correlational, meaning that we see these effects on children who take music, but we aren't sure if it's the music that makes students better or that the better students end up taking music. It is probably a little bit of both, but like the link between smoking and cancer (also correlational) there is a growing consensus that music education may actually be driving these behavioral advantages.

Why might this be?

Learning a musical instrument exercises a number of different brain circuits. Before making a sound, our brain activates prediction devices, neural circuits that attempt to predict what sound will come out of the instrument. Then we make the sound and a comparitor circuit comes online to compare what we did with what we thought we did. A third set of neural circuits then gets activated to make any corrections to bring the two closer together. All of these operations are important for developing problem solving skills.

Playing an instrument with others draws us outside ourselves because we have to coordinate what we're doing with what others are doing-- to listen to them and predict when they are going to make a musical note so that we can synchronize with them. Playing music in synchrony with others causes our neurons to physically synchronize with each other's, causing feelings of connection and bonding. In this way, music can defuse interpersonal tensions and rivalries, and teach us the joy and power of interpersonal connection and cooperation.

Art education in general teaches us to see the world differently, to realize that there are different perspectives on things, and that people can have different emotional reactions to the same works of art, the same encounters, the same experiences. This leads to greater open-mindedness, which in turn leads to greater tolerance and acceptance of others. Art exercises us in the skill of balancing the creative with the practical, getting ideas out of our heads and out-there-in-the-world. Art teaches us to make connections between things that we didn't see as connected before. And that's actually what most problem solving involves: seeing connections between things that we hadn't previously seen as connected.

The big problems that face the world today do not have easy solutions-- if they did, they would have been solved. But I think our best bet for solving them is to turn them over to people who are open-minded, tolerant, appreciate the power of cooperation, and can see connections between things that hadn't been seen before. Arts education does not ensure that we will be able to solve these big problems, but my bets are on it to give the next generation of leaders the best possible chance to formulate creative, practical, solutions. Art education should not be political and it should not be a partisan issue.

My own arts education may have begun in public school, but it was immeasurably enhanced by Howie, one of my greatest music teachers.

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At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That picture looks just like my classroom! Thank you for this nicely written article. I hope that the right people read it.


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