Music and the Mind

dreamstime_xs_33833180By Suzan Mullane. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” So sayeth British playwright William Congreve  in opening Act 1 of the Mourning Bride.

Long before any understanding of neuroplasticity, many poets and musicians were aware of the healing and learning properties of music—even in 1703. Fast forward 300 plus years and we’re having similar discussions, but science has changed the narratives.  Levitin’s “This is Your Brain on Music,” answers provocative questions like: What do pet scans and MRI’s reveal about how the brain responds to music? Or why is that in some societies singing is linked to the survival of a culture. Is musical preference shaped in utero or is preference a question of nature or nurture?

What we do know is that music is often linked to powerful moods. Consider the last time a certain melody brought you to tears or spontaneous joy.

Our brain on music reveals some secrets. But there is more.

Eric Jenson, author of “Teaching with Poverty in Mind,” offers brilliant suggestions in his book “Music With the Brain in Mind.” Music enhances instruction and music can calm the brain. Whether it is perceptual motor skills or recall, creating new neuropathways through music so students can focus intently on curriculum with less stress is good pedagogy. As educators, we know that the “sit and get” method does not work for all—literally leaving many students bored out of their minds.

I agree with Jensen. As a student of music therapy who later became a kindergarten teacher, I used Orff instruments to teach syllabication and choral readings to teach nursery rhymes with Big Books. The results were amazing. Sight word vocabulary increased four fold and the children loved it. We danced and sang stories and traced letters in the air while we sang. We even sang when we lined up or practiced social skills. At the end of the year, parents were delighted to see how well their students read with such vigor. The beauty in reading acquisition through music is that it eliminates so much stress. Pure joy!


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  • You have inspired me to purchase Jensen’s book. Levitin left me hankering for more! While Levitin addressed the physiology of the brain on music, he also wrote in a style that provoked the mind. He asked, “Can life exist without music?” Music, like a good meal, brings people together. How could we exist alone, without society? We can seek to map the brain down to the very atom, but it is the mind that connects us.

    The mind is like a brain with heart. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel presents this aspect so very well in his book, The Mindful Brain. Awareness. Think about it. When we hear something that we recognize, we stop for a minute. Perhaps we avert our gaze as we “catch ourself” and listen – what did that sound remind me of? A measure from Beethoven’s Fifth? It is this same portion of the mind that can look at someone else’s face and know that they have heard it too – wordlessly. From this repeated experience comes the ability to empathize. All this from neurons firing, but it is each unique person who interprets the pattern from the wellspring of neurons firing!

    So when we hear the rhythms in rain or see it in the beating of wings, we learn. And we share. We humans must verbalize things we perceive. We must have words. This puts the heart into being, into learning. CEI expresses this “way” so clearly in its newsletters. Would love to learn more about Orff, Suzan! Thanks for helping me practice…

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