Music and the Mind

“Music is the manifestation of the human spirit, similar to language. Its greatest practitioners have conveyed to mankind things not possible to say in any other language. If we do not want these things to remain dead treasures, we must do our utmost to make the greatest possible number of people understand their idiom.” –Zoltán Kodály

Recently, a number of reports have appeared that attest to the connection between music and academic achievement.

In a study of the ability of fourteen year-old science students in seventeen countries, the top three countries were Hungary, the Netherlands, and Japan.

All three include music throughout the curriculum from kindergarten through high school.

In the 1960’s, the Kodály system of music education was instituted in the schools of Hungary as a result of the outstanding academic achievement of children in its “singing schools.”

Today, there are no third graders who cannot sing on pitch and sing beautifully. In addition, the academic achievement of Hungarian students, especially in math and science, continues to be outstanding.

The Netherlands began their music program in 1968, and Japan followed suit by learning from the experience of these other countries.

Another report disclosed the fact that the foremost technical designers and engineers in Silicon Valley are almost all practicing musicians.

A third report reveals that the schools who produced the highest academic achievement in the United States today are spending 20 to 30% of the day on the arts, with special emphasis on music.

Included are St. Augustine Bronx elementary school, which, as it was about to fail in 1984, implemented an intensive music program. Today 90% of the students are reading at or above grade level.

Davidson School in Augusta, Georgia (grades 5-12), which began its music and arts program in 1981, is #1 academically in the country. Ashley River Elementary in Charleston, North Carolina is #2 academically, second only to a school for the academically gifted.

I personally experienced the relationship between music and scholarship when I was director of the Seattle Creative Activities Center many years ago.

At that time, we did not have the research at hand to explain why many children who were taking music and painting classes suddenly began to excel in math at school.

Other children began to improve in their language arts skills.

Today, the research emerging from the cognitive sciences gives us useful information to explain those connections.

As a result of technology which allows us to see the human brain while it is in the process of thinking, we can observe, for example, t hat when people listen to melodies with a variety of pitch and timbre, the right hemisphere of the brain is activated.

It also “lights up” when people play music by ear. When, however, people learn to read music, understand key signatures, notation, and other details of scores, and are able to follow the sequence of notes, then the left hemisphere “lights up.”

Significantly, it is activated in the same area that is involved in analytical and mathematical thinking.

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