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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Music makes you smarter - but so what?

My newspaper featured an article on the closing down of municipal music schools. It also featured, on the same page and meant as a 'besides', the opinion of its classical music critic with the speaking name 'Mischa Spel' (Mischa Play) on the present-day problems of music education. I sympathize with many of his ideas (especially with the idea that singing by ordinary classroom teachers is one of the key factors of music education in primary schools), but as usual in those cases, Spel's 'besides' also contained quite some sweeping statements on the general benefits of music education. In this case, Spel referred to research showing that  "when  more music lessons are given, certain parts of the brain (the auditory cortex) develop better, and the scores on IQ, social behavior and concentration become higher and better".

"Higher and better". Yes.

 The Brain Craze, revisited. Indeed.

The next day, my newspaper ran another article on the topic. A fact check article. My newspaper publishes a fact check article every day, in which it checks public utterances by politicians, researchers,  journalists, or whoever, often to their annoyance. In this case it checked Spel's quote 'Music makes smarter'. The conclusion (based partly on a yet-to-appear meta-study of the effects of music by OECD): it is a half-truth. Music makes one smarter. But so does playing chess, juggling, or being a taxi-driver. (Compare the famous Mozart-effect, which is also a Dvorak-effect and an eating-bananas-effect.) And for transfer of musical smartness outside the realm of music is as yet no evidence.

So there we stand, with nothing in hands for the defense of music education than music itself. Which is good. Teachers in maths or languages will tell you that maths education makes you better in maths and language education fosters language skills. Math teachers don't teach maths because you become smarter by learning maths, but because you learn maths by learning maths. The fact that we (in spite of Howard Gardner's yet-to-be-proven ideas on multiple intelligence) measure smartness in math-and-language-terms pollutes the discussion, I know, but eventually we have to show why music is important 'qua music', I guess. And by the way: the fact that we measue smartness not in musical terms in spite of music's importance in everyday life says something not-so-positive of our capacities in advocacy, I guess.

The first question we have to answer therefore is the question why on earth  music plays - although it is good for nothing but music - such an enormous role in the lives of most people. Knowing the answer to that question gives us a clue why music should have a place in education, and what the music teacher is supposed to do in the classroom. And the answer to that question will be furnished to us only when we become interested not only in he musical life of the talented and gifted role-models of our society ("higher and better", indeed),  but also in the musical life of the colleague, the neighbor, and the plumber.


PS
Independent of this blog entry I received an email from Carol Watson, referring to a concise article by her on the internet mentioning Seven Benefits of Music Education. It is a summary of current thoughts about the benefits of music education worth checking, with concrete references to the research behind it. Check it out HERE.
To be continued...

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