"Music is a language that kindles the human spirit, sharpens the mind, fuels the body, and fills the heart." – Erik Jensen
"The arts are far closer to the core of education than are the more exalted subjects." - Abraham Maslow
In this era of standards and accountability, arts are increasingly viewed as a frill and removed from school curriculum. Brain research suggests that arts can lay a foundation for academic and career success. Science, mathematics, and language require complex cognitive and creative capacities typical of arts learning. Arts promote the development of valuable human neurobiological systems. The systems they nourish include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities—the driving forces behind all other learning. A strong arts program increases creativity, concentration, problem solving, self-efficacy, and coordination.
Making art is a highly cognitive process that involves problem-solving, critical thinking, and creative thinking. Going back more than a decade, neuroscience and cognitive studies have documented the importance of the arts to learning in other domains. Research has shown that visual arts (art production, paper and canvas work, photography, drawing, and painting) improve reading and math scores. Different types of art activate different areas of the brain. Studies report strong links between visual learning and improvement in reading and creativity.
Fine arts programs are known for fostering commitment to task and social skill development. Many children who participate in visual arts programs report gains in self-discipline, work ethic, and teamwork. The neurobiological systems necessary for improved grades include quick thinking, mental model development, task sequencing, memory, self-discipline, problem-solving, and persistence. These and other related skills are developed through dramatic arts.
Music's importance to the brain and learning is also prevalent in long-standing research literature. Music helps people think by activating and synchronizing neural firing patterns that orchestrate and connect multiple brain sites.
Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, states "Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there: weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, prayer, a romantic dinner, mothers rocking their infants to sleep ... music is a part of the fabric of everyday life." Music is fundamental to our species, maybe even more so than language.
Children involved in music and arts develop better thinking and problem-solving skills, better language skills and more creativity than children who are not. Children of low socioeconomic status who were exposed to music scored higher in math than those who did not.
Perhaps most importantly, it is clear from the research that music can change listeners' emotional states which, in turn, impacts their cognitive performance Music is an example of a stimulus that changes how people feel, which in turn influences how they perform on tests of cognitive abilities. Music serves to convey feelings through the interaction of physical gestures and sound. The musician uses his brain music state to match the emotional state he is trying to express to the listener.
Music arouses the brain and carries words. Music engages multiple areas of the brain and has multiple, far-reaching effects on the mind. Music may be the activity that prepared our ancestors for speech communication and the very cognitive skills necessary to become humans.
In 2008, the Dana Foundation published Learning Arts, and the Brain, which reported key findings that allow for deeper causal relationships between the arts and the ability of the brain to learn in other cognitive domains.
Key findings include:
- Performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces attention skills that improve other domains;
- Music training is linked to the ability to manipulate information in memory that improve other domains;
- There are links between music practice and geometrical representation;
- There are correlations between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning;
- Training in acting leads to memory improvement and skills for manipulating semantic information;
- And learning to dance by effective observational learning transfers to other cognitive skills.
The argument that art and music are frills finds no support in brain research. Evidence is persuasive that our brain is designed for music and the arts, and that a music and arts education program has positive, measurable, and lasting academic and social benefits.
In afterschool programs, arousing music can be used during games or clean-up activities. Relaxing music can be used in a quiet home-like area of the program or as background music during reading. Listening to background music can substantially improve reading comprehension, math scores, history scores, and social skills. Singing in afterschool programs not only stimulates the brain, but is correlated with abstract thinking skills, verbal skills, and higher reading scores. The best afterschool programs truly embrace arts and music as essential practices.
For breakfast today, I had a large glass of iced coffee.
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Jensen, E. (2001). Arts with the brain in mind. San Diego, CA: The Brain Story Inc.
Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. Penguin. New York: NY.
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Neuro-Education Initiative (2009). Neuroeducation: Learning, arts, and the brain. Findings and challenges for educators and researchers from the 2009 John Hopkins University Summit. Retrieved from http://steam-notstem.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Neuroeducation.pdf