Monday, February 25, 2013

Child development and music part two

Young people learn to communicate effortlessly via conversation. music, and computers, but many in our society seemingly don't consider music an integral element of language. The reduction (and even elimination) of school music instruction is an enigma, given its ancient human roots and current cultural ubiquity.

It's even possible that music predated human language, since scientists have discovered 50,000-year-old flutes made from bear bones—and a flute is an advanced musical instrument. Further, adults universally interact with infants via a musical form called motherese—a high-pitched, exaggerated, repetitive, melodic format that engages the rapt attention and mimicked response of infants who cannot understand the words. Music thus introduces infants to speech by preparing their brain to process effectively its complexities and improvisations.

Two fascinating informative new books explain the ancient roots and underlying neurobiology of music and the key role it plays in human life and communication. They are thus a valuable resource for those who seek credible evidence that music has all but ben abandoned as a tool for communication because we live in a culture that does not understand it anymore.

In The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body , Steven Mithen leads readers through the considerable evidence from archeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and musicology that supports the growing belief that musical capabilities within early humans led to language (the opposing belief being that music is basically a pleasant evolutionary by-product of human language).

Mithen is an early pre-history scholar, and his book makes demands on readers with a limited background in the several research areas it explores. Notes and references comprise almost 100 pages of the 400-page book. Still, its breadth, passion, and conversational writing make it fascinating and informative.

For example, language and music are related in that both can be vocal (as in speech and song) and gestural (as in sign language, instrumental music, and dance), and both can exist in a written format. Music and language are both a product of body/head movements that transmit information from one brain to another. Both music and language are hierarchical in that acoustic elements (words, tones) combine into phrases (utterances, melodies) that can further combine into larger entities (stories, symphonies). These and other similarities are possible because of specific related brain properties that Mithen explains and explores to support his belief in the co-evolution of our music and language capabilities.

Daniel Levitin approaches the music/language issue from a career that led him from session musician to sound engineer to record producer to neuroscientist to his current position as a professor of the psychology of electronic communication. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006) is a marvelous book for folks with a reasonable understanding of music who want to understand its underlying neurobiology—what occurs within our brain when we're listening to or making music.

Levitin rejects the widespread belief that music is something experts do, and that the rest of us should simply appreciate their musical virtuosity. He argues rather that music is an innate human property that develops as easily in children as other forms of language. Preschool children playfully explore the elements of both music and language.

Levitin thus begins his book with an intriguing informative introduction to the elements of music (rhythm, pitch, melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, harmony) that most of us should have learned in school but did not. He connects these elements to specific well-known musical works from classical to jazz to hip-hop (and to almost everything in between).

He further connects these musical elements to the appropriate brain systems and functions—demonstrating in the process that music integrates our brain's emotional, rational, and movement systems in a way that no other activity does. Music is central to the development and maintenance of our brain.

These two persuasive books left me wondering how a supposedly enlightened culture like ours could consciously neglect the development of a definitive brain property. Spoken and written language are obviously superior to music in the transmission of information, but music trumps adjectives and adverbs in the transmission of qualities and feelings. Further, we began life with the music of motherese, and we often return to music when words alone fail us. We truly need to develop both forms of language to be fully human. Do folks really believe that knowing how to harmonize or play an oboe or improvise jazz or analyze a symphony is innate? Do such folks also believe that language is only about knowing, and not about feeling?

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