There’s an interesting (old) article over at the Harvard University Gazette. I’m guessing most folks have already read it, since it’s from 1997, but I’m always just a little bit slow. Even though I’m a musician. And we are supposed to be smart. Maybe.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading it, although understanding it all is another story all together! How my brain understands music? Heck … it’s all a mystery to me, although I’m incredibly thankful that it does.

For quite some time there has been talk about how smart chilren become when taking music lessons. According to the article, and to what I’ve heard elsewhere, music students excel at the SAT, they are good at math (not yours truly, mind you!), yada yada yada. The article also includes the question about whether the music makes one smarter or the smarter take music. Or is it income? Or, or, or …?

I’m simplifying everything, of course. Because I’m simple that way. :-)

If you are too lazy to read the entire article, here are the last few paragraphs (about music and smarts, not about how the brain deciphers music):

Experimenters at the University of California at Irvine compared 3-year-olds who took piano lessons with peers who learned to sing, use the computer, or did none of these things. A few weeks later, the little piano players did better than the other groups at solving puzzles similar to those presented in IQ tests.

Evidence also exists that high school students with a music background do better than their peers on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) for college entrance.

Tramo thinks this may work because of “generalization,” the principle that studying one subject helps a learner with other subjects. “Music performance involves many cognitive, perceptual, and motor skills,” he notes. “These skills can be transferred to different kinds of intellectual activities. Music also allows you to put a lot of emotion into what you play or sing.”

There could be other explanations, of course. Intelligent, confident children might excel naturally in both music and math. Many parents who can pay for music lessons can also afford a better education for their offspring.

On balance, however, Tramo thinks that “by bringing out and exercising musical ability in children, you nurture the development of their intelligence.”

So instrumental music is different than singing, eh? That might explain some singers … oh wait! … I’m not going to go there. (Just kidding, all you singers out there! Really!)

I do think that one thing a musician does without really thinking about it (most of the time) is multi-tasking. We have to do so much at once, and we also have to omit any distractions as we do what we are doing. We process notes, we read ahead, we look at dynmaics, we add the “music” to the music (if you know what I mean). We have to react instantly to any changes a conductor or fellow musician gives us. We have to react to mistakes (yes, we sometimes have to jump measures. I find this especially true in musical theatre). When I once had so much water in an octave key I knew I wouldn’t be able to play any notes that required the side octave key I quickly improvised a solo (I would never do this in symphony or opera music, but it was musical theatre and, well, it can be a bit more flexible … imo of course!).

The eye to brain to finger connection must be instantaneous; we see a note, we process what it is, we finger the note, we play. At the same time we are looking ahead to see what we are in for (and looking for the necessary alternate fingerings), how to shape the line … and more. When we are advanced enough (and well trained) these things just happen. It’s like breathing. Sort of.

But I ramble. For no good reason, other than I can. And maybe because I want to feel as if I’m smarrtt today. ;-)

Tonight my brain will be deciphering Tristan und Isolde. Or so I hope. I suspect my brain will, on occasion, take a mini-holiday. It’s going to be a long sit and long listen. I think I may go on overload. But I’m hoping to let the music wash over me and not worry too much about listening so carefully that this little brain ‘o mine explodes!

3 Comments

  1. Read my blog… :-)

  2. Patricia Mitchell

    … I did … and loved it! Wagner is one long delayed gratification feast, isn’t he? :-)

  3. Katarina Eriksson

    Something beautiful that was in the program to our Tristan in Stockholm;

    “The orchestra is so special, because they are the only ones who know it all from the very beginning – in the very first chord you can hear that they know the terrible
    ending of the love story”…