Monday, October 12, 2015

To Apollo and Saraswati

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”
― Ludwig van Beethoven

Today I have been in a Spanish mood.  This morning I enjoyed Bienvenido a la vida by Aleks Syntek y la Gente Normal while preparing and eating my breakfast, and just now, while feeding the cats and then chopping vegetables for the soup pot, I have been listening to Piedras by Duncan Dhu.

This got me thinking about music and learning.  You see, the first few CDs of music in Spanish which I ever purchased, I acquired in the hope that they would help me to learn Spanish.  I had recently begun studying Spanish at City College of San Francisco, with a marvelous instructor named Javier Toruño.  I figured that, since I love music, if I could find some music in Spanish that I liked it might at least help me grow accustomed to the pronunciation and cadence of the language.  This proved to be true, and as I painstakingly translated the songs that got stuck in my head, it also improved my vocabulary.

Back then (early 1990s) I had cable, including MTV Internacional, which was how I discovered a few of the bands whose albums were among my first purchases.  Being a buyer at a record store was also useful.  The first songs that I found helpful, somewhat to my surprise, were pure pop.  Once I thought about it it made perfect sense—the lyrics are fairly simple, usually repetitive, and often enunciated much more clearly than "edgier" music.  So these sorts of songs were great for someone taking Spanish 1.  They just weren't the sorts of songs that I tended to listen to in English in those days.  My favorite guilty pleasure from this category?  Magneto.

As I continued my studies I also continued to listen to music in Spanish, including bands which were more like what I tended to choose in English.  Some of those favorites include Café Tacvba, La Lupita, Babasonicos, Me enveneno de azules, and the above mentioned Duncan Dhu.  I've never lost my love for this music, and still continue to buy it, though I stopped studying Spanish many years ago.

The earliest music/learning associations that I have are with the alphabet song and "One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others)" from Sesame Street, closely followed by various songs from Schoolhouse Rock.  These are all, explicitly, instructional songs—and all highly effective (at least, once I realized that elemenopee was five letters, not one).  This is the most obvious way that music is associated with learning.  It's a tool which has been widely used from time immemorial.  Besides the many songs and rhymes that I learned as a child (I will never forget that a noun is a person, place or thing), I sometimes make up ditties of my own to help me remember things.

But it seems that there is more to the music and learning link than just teaching songs.  The godfather of New Age music, Steven Halpern, has long asserted that, "Using the right music can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the environment for learning."  He creates and sells such music himself, it's true, but he is not alone in making this assertion.  There have been numerous studies which have led, on the one hand, to Mozart CDs being repackaged to appeal to parents wishing to boost their children's IQ, and on the other hand to practical advice for educators on how to use music to enhance the learning environment in the classroom, for instance, Music and Learning: Integrating Music in the Classroom.
Using the right music can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the environment for learning. - See more at:
Using the right music can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the environment for learning. - See more at:
Using the right music can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the environment for learning. - See more at:

So listening to music is good, but what about making it?  A little while ago I read an article titled, "Musical training boosts language and memory skills, says study" on the Positive News site.  This reports on a recent study conducted in the Chicago area which compared the linguistic development of two groups of teenagers.  One group took music instruction classes, and the other group took JROTC classes.  Interestingly, the study found that the students who were studying music experienced both more rapid development of some linguistic skills, and an extended period of mental plasticity during which they could learn things more easily.  And there are other studies showing similar results, including those which were the subject of a Northwestern University research review discussed here.

I think it's great that all this research is being done to prove that music is beneficial in many ways to learning, but you know?  I've never in my life doubted it.  And neither did the ancient Greeks and Hindus—each pantheon having a god who is associated with both music and knowledge/wisdom.