This is a transcript of a Podcast from Scientific American. It also appeared in the magazine Scientific American.While the I have highlighted (in bold) the main points of the transcript but feel free to read it in its entirety.full podcast discussed a variety of topics. The portion I have included below speaks about the power of playing a musical instrument and its connection to today’s education.
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the more or less weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on November 19th 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. Why is Scientific American pushing for more music education? Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and I will discuss this in the November issue of the magazine. We spoke at theScientific American offices.
Steve: We are going to do a little different. We usually talk about the feature articles in the magazine, butlet's talk about the departments, the columns and the other kinds of monthly—not featured articles but features to the magazine—and one of them is the monthly editorial which is now called…
DiChristina: …the Science Agenda.
Steve: And the agenda item this month might look a little strange to people if they open up a science magazine and they see this editorial from Scientific American all about the importance of maintaining our arts education, especially music.
DiChristina: Right, I mean, maybe C. P. Snow's Two Cultures has never been more prevalent in certain ways. Let me address Steve why an arts and music editorial in Scientific American is actually not a strange thing,[or] you know, not a surprising thing in a science magazine. The fact of that the matter is scientific studies have shown that music actually helps students learn in a couple of key ways. One is, first of all a lot of audience probably heard about the Mozart Effect, right, and there are millions of dollars made, I am sure on selling anxious parents on listening to classic music CDs.
Steve: Right: The image of a pregnant woman with headphones on their pregnant bellies.
DiChristina: That's actually a research image that Steve is referring to; it was really done. And the Mozart Effect as such didn't prove to be really, you know, a powerful effect at all; it was largely discredited in many ways. Although I have to say a lot of parents and kids listen[ed] to some beautiful music.
Steve: Right this is the idea, that if you just play classical music to a baby, or even to a fetus, that you're going to boost their intelligence, and that's really been discredited. But …
DiChristina: But real experience with—when I say real experience, maybe [that's] not a fair way to put it—let's call it interactive experience where students are actually playing an instrument; where you're physically engaging with it, not just listening to it and thinking about it. Although there are, I think, some lovely life benefits to listening to it and thinking about and contemplating it. But science has shown that music training, real training, any instruments you play can help your brain process in a couple of key ways that aid in learning. And with everybody's concern today about the state of U.S. education, nonetheless science education,this seems like a useful thing. And I will explain those; [theres] a couple of key ones that I think parents and others should keep in mind.
Steve: I mean if nothing else, you aregonna learn how to count to four.
DiChristina: (laughter) So one of them, speaking of learning to count to [four], is the brain,when you're playing an instrument of any kind learns to process sound better. And [that may] sound obvious but it has some interesting implications. It helps learning when you're trying to concentrate on a difficult task; for instance, if you're sitting in abiology class you are able to listen, absorb and process the sounds from your teacher'smouth better than you would have been without that interactive practice with an instrument.
Steve: We have actual data to back this claim.
DiChristina: There is actual data to back this upand in a world of multi-tasking, right, where so many of us are trying to do more than one thing at once, people who played a musical instrument, who are listening, processing the music and you know using the mechanics of their bodyand the mechanical processing areas of their brain to play that instrument are also able to multi-task better. So,that's one process, and then a second one that I like to mention in particular is that students who learn how to play an instrument are better at absorbing and processing pitch and timing.Now that also may sound obvious, but the implication is not obvious. That is for instance that it would make easier for those students wholearn a new language, in particular languages that are sometimes challenging for western speakers such as Mandarin, where a change in pitch and timing cancreate a whole different word meaning.
Steve: Right, the editorial talks about the word—and I don't know how to pronounce it correctly—but it's either"ma" or "maa" I think and one means "mother" andthe other means "scold," so the example is, if your Ma"maas" you to practice the violin, it's probably a good thing.
DiChristina: Now speaking for myself, if only I had practiced more at the piano, I could have helped you with that pronunciation,Steve.
Steve: Thank you. You studied piano—anyother instrument?
DiChristina: I did study a bit of piano and flute.I proved to be rather abysmal at keeping to my practice schedule, at least for the flute. The piano, when I was—maybe this dates me—[I remember] my father taking me aside and saying, "Mariette, I am very sorry, I have to stop the piano lessons for a little while because they cost four dollars a week." Well, I think that the larger point here is that, as you know, granted we are all under budget pressures, the economy hasn't done us any favors lately; but as we are considering what to do with programs, ways to keepor retain music training in schools can only benefit learning, and they shouldn't be the first places we look to cut.
Steve: You know that Meg Whitman spentalmost as much money—I believe the figure was $161 million—in her unsuccessful campaign for the governorship of California as the entire annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.
DiChristina: That is a telling and rather disturbing statistic, Steve.