Category Archives: Music Learning

School Music vs. Real Music

ImageWhen all the activities of the 2014 Super Bowl had concluded, many people agreed that the music around the NFL finale was much more interesting than the game itself. It included a wonderful breadth of style. The multitalented Queen Latifah sang America the Beautiful, operatic superstar Renée Fleming performed the National Anthem, and we were treated to a lively halftime pairing of Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Following Ms. Fleming’s breathtaking performance, I tuned back in to Twitter and saw some tweets about her singing the anthem. Most praised her rendition, but a number of music-oriented tweeters said things to the effect of: “For once we got to hear the anthem sung by a real singer.” Maybe this sentiment is just the letting off of steam by formally-trained musicians, frustrated by their preferred styles being left out of the big-time media spotlight too often. But I did note that instead of referring to the anthem’s operatic stylings as “my kind of music” or even “good music,” some people suggested that we finally got to hear some “real music.” Not surprisingly, I was disappointed that in complimenting Ms. Fleming’s performance, some felt the need to put down the previous offerings of other non-classical singers (consider checking out “My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship”).

Clearly many in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society. This includes the students that school music teachers are charged to educate. Research has confirmed that in the minds of many young people, there can be a significant disconnect between their conceptions of school music and what they consider to be real music (Boal-Palheiros & Hargreaves, 2001; Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003; Lamont et al., 2003). For music educators, this disconnect is more than just a nuisance, or a mark of immaturity that must be overcome. Learning of any kind is greatly influenced by students’ intrinsic motivation for the subject matter and their beliefs about its relevance to their lives.

Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions. Keep in mind, of course, that this broad perspective does not represent only the kids who have found a home in the school band, choir, or orchestra, but the comparative majority who elect not to take any music at the secondary level. In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.

As alluded to above, this disconnect between school music and real music can cause many students to avoid music learning opportunities altogether once these class offerings become elective for them. And for the students who do continue in school music, many carry on musical “double lives” that prevent them from getting the most out of their childhood music experiences. I was a prime example of this myself as a kid. I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band, but outside of school, I was a heavy consumer of popular music (as a child of the 80s, I’m sure you can guess what fills my iTunes library yet today!). What’s more, like so many other music students, my musical divide was not just a matter of stylistic genre. My musicianship in school was limited to playing just one instrument, almost always from notation, and in preparation for a public performance. My out-of-school musicality was also quite limited, but in very different ways. It revolved around listening and singing to recordings, either alone or with friends, but never for an audience. I’m sure many others can relate with me on this, including a lot of our best young music students of today.

In no way am I suggesting that we’re doing it all wrong in formal music education, or that we should try to reproduce exactly in music classrooms the informal learning experiences that so naturally happen outside of school. I would, however, urge music educators not to dismiss students’ preferred styles of popular music as somehow less real or worthy of consideration. Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction. These things are not only part of natural musicality, they also can contribute to efficient learning (Cassidy & Paisley, 2013).

I believe that we in music education could benefit more from looking at how people learn music in the real world and incorporating aspects into our teaching activities. Constructivist theory in education tells us that people learn much through active involvement with their environments. Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it (Campbell et al, 2007). When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.


Boal-Palheiros, G. M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2001). Listening to music at home and at school. British Journal of Music Education, 18(2), 103-118.

Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236.

Cassidy, G. G., & Paisley, A. M. (2013). Music-games: A case study of their impact. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(1), 119-138.

Hargreaves, D. J., & Marshall, N. (2003). Developing identities in music education. Music Education Research, 5(3), 263-274.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A., & Tarrant, M. (2003). Young people’s music in and out of school. British Journal of Music Education, 20(3), 229-241.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: MTSOfan on Flickr Creative Commons

Manufacturing Mozarts and Mannings

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

I enjoy finding parallels between music and sports. While these two domains are sometimes thought of as very different, research attests to some interesting commonalities (e.g., Martin, 2008; Nordin-Bates, 2012). There are important principles and processes that are illustrated well in both music and sports—principles and processes that are not just fundamental in the lives of performers, but in the lives of all people. These include teamwork, creativity, emotion and motivation, and anxiety, just to name a few. I’m so interested in these things that I created a course that I now teach at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln called “Music and Sports: Performance and Perception.” The topics listed above relate mostly to the performance part of the class. For the coverage of perception, we largely consider society’s adoration of musical or sporting events and players. Whether it’s an athlete on the field/court or a musician onstage, fans love to be drawn into the emotion of the scene before them and be dazzled by greatness.

Amazing child performers are particularly fascinating in music and sports. I recently watched the ESPN Films documentary “The Book of Manning,” which offered behind-the-scenes access to the development of two professional football quarterbacks, brothers Peyton and Eli Manning, whose father Archie was also a pro QB (see the trailer here). At one point in the film, the narrator calls Peyton a prodigy. The use of this term was just one parallel between the Manning boys’ development and that of exceptional young musical performers. In fact many of the characteristics of the Mannings’ childhood—including those presented in the film as most contributing to their success as adults—are often found in the biographies of professional musicians. Actually, as I heard Peyton and Eli talk about their father as their chief mentor and teacher, it reminded me a lot of how fellow New Orleans natives Branford and Wynton Marsalis speak of their father Ellis.

In my Music and Sports class, I have used a couple of YouTube videos that present two wonderful child prodigies. The videos are local news reports about kids in their communities. One is a budding pianist and composer, and the other a young basketball phenom. What I like about these videos is that they don’t just show the children performing, but they give insight into their backgrounds: their families, personalities, and home environments. Despite the news reporters presenting these children as unexplainable wonders of genetics or giftedness (and I get it…it makes for a better story), we can see how these kids have personal passion for what they do, and have had special opportunities to acquire their impressive skills.

The video of 6-year-old musician Emily Bear (she’s now 12) does much to advance the idea of giftedness. The title of the feature suggests that she is “the next Mozart” and the reporter begins by stating that she was “born to play the piano.” From those around her, she has come to believe that music simply comes from within her. Yet the report also points out that Emily grew up in a home filled with music, including a brother who plays classical guitar and sister who’s a pianist and harpist. The short video also reveals that one of her grandmothers is a “concert pianist who’s made a career of teaching musically gifted children,” and that Emily’s other teachers have included a piano faculty member at the Music Institute of Chicago and the principal keyboardist of the Chicago Symphony (she also has since been mentored by legendary music producer Quincy Jones). Personally, instead of attributing her superb musicianship to a giftedness she had no control over, I marvel at how well Emily has made the most of her opportunities, and how her own musical drives and joy have resulted in her becoming an accomplished concert pianist, jazz artist, and composer.

My sports parallel is young basketball player Jordan McCabe. Labeled a prodigy and a phenom, this kid can do some pretty spectacular things with a basketball (actually with two sometimes!). He has skills that very few other people on the planet can even approach, which would leave many to believe he’s been endowed with some kind of special athleticism. Yet this video report makes mention of the hours of practice that Jordan has put in, including with his father and grandfather; the reporter calls him “the classic gym rat.” His father recounts how Jordan got “hungrier for doing more and more” as his skills grew. In addition to this personal motivation to achieve, I’m struck by the enjoyment and reward this young man clearly gets from playing basketball.

These two videos, like the Manning documentary, illustrate a number of principles offered by the research on the acquisition of expert performance skills (e.g., Creech & Hallam, 2011; McPherson, Davidson & Faulkner, 2012). Before becoming a virtuoso musician or athlete, young people have significant exposure in the domain, and access to resources to quickly grow in it (e.g., mentors and teachers, time and places to practice). But more than this, they have an internal drive to grow and succeed in the domain. They are not manufactured by anyone else to become performers; they want to do it themselves.

There are several key contributors to this kind of motivation. First, the children manage to keep the fun in their activities, no matter how much structured practice or competition they are part of. They maintain a large sense of autonomy, being able to exercise choice in what they do and have opportunities to explore and be creative. Their parents contribute to this by simply being parents. That is, they don’t necessarily aspire to be their children’s primary teacher or mentor (even if they could be), or career manager. The “Book of Manning” documentary shares that father Archie did not let his boys play organized little league football too early. So the informal and social setting of backyard games was where they got their football fix as youngsters. Archie didn’t force football on his kids, rather he insisted that they made their own decisions and followed their own passions. He was happy to share his football expertise with his sons, but they had to come to him for it. As Peyton says in the film, “He was going to be a parent first, and kind of an ex-football player after that.”

I believe much can be gained from considering childhood biographical accounts of successful performers. That said, I recognize that these stories don’t offer much to settle the nature versus nurture debate. Musical parents tend to provide their children with musical environments from the earliest stages of life. But we need not know the exact value of nature to realize that nurture is the only part of the equation that we have any control over. Parents and teachers would do well to support their young musician’s personal interests, sense of autonomy, and enjoyment in the domain.


Creech, A., & Hallam, S. (2011). Learning a musical instrument: The influence of interpersonal interaction on outcomes for school-aged pupils. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 102-122.

Martin, A. J. (2008). Motivation and engagement in music and sport: Testing a multidimensional framework in diverse performance settings. Journal of Personality, 76(1), 135-170.

McPherson, G. E., Davidson, J. W., & Faulkner, R. (2012). Music in our lives: Rethinking musical ability, development, and identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nordin-Bates, S. M. (2012). Performance psychology in the performing arts. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 81-114). New York: Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


Source of images: wcfsymphony and Jeffrey Beall on Flickr Creative Commons

Providing Vernacular Music Experiences to Formally Trained Music Educators

The term vernacular music refers to the musical styles and music making practices that are most widely used among people. I tend to use the terms vernacular music and popular music interchangeably. For decades now, leaders within music education have promoted the use of popular music in schools only to see little substantive change occur. I think, however, that the curricular landscape might be starting to change. Hopefully more schools are broadening the music learning opportunities they offer to become more inclusive of multiple types of musicianship.

A critical ingredient for carrying on this kind of curricular reform is equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to use popular music in authentic and educationally meaningful ways. I’ve had the opportunity to do this with the music education majors at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. For these students, I offer a course called “Popular Musicianship” with my colleague Dale Bazan. Most of these teachers-to-be have developed their musicianship exclusively through the formal settings of large ensembles in schools and private one-on-one lessons. In this course, they form small “rock bands” and learn how to play the instruments authentic to them. Almost entirely outside of class meetings, they collaborate to cover popular songs and create original works. They also do some songwriting individually.

Here’s a short video from last fall’s class in which I explain it some more:

When talking about the educational benefits of using popular music, one that is usually mentioned first is the motivation boost it can offer. I’ve certainly seen this played out with my students. They have such personal, emotional, and social connections to popular music that they seem willing to invest a lot of their free time—what little music education majors have!—on improving their vernacular musicianship. And their intrinsic motivation is surely enhanced by their being able to choose the music they work on, even composing some of it individually and collaboratively.

Using popular music, however, is much more than a “hook” to get kids into school music programs, only then to focus on other musical things they may not like as much. I seriously doubt that a bait-and-switch approach even works in the long run. The real power of popular music comes from the fact that it’s the native musical style of young people. It only makes sense to use a familiar musical context to most effectively engage students in creative activities like composing and improvising. As numerous music pedagogues have pointed out, people ideally learn music in the same sequence as they learn their native language. Much listening necessarily precedes imitation and personal expression. Here’s where popular music can offer an educational opportunity that other less familiar styles cannot.

As I said above, most of the music education students come into the Popular Musicianship course having logged much time listening to popular music, but having very little experience performing it or being creative with it. They seem to get a lot out of exploring the social music making and personal expressivity. They gain more confidence in ear playing and improvisation, and grow the artistic interpersonal skills involved in making creative group decisions. Through songwriting and performance of original music, many discover a new outlet to express intense feelings and stories from their personal lives. When they have these musical experiences, they quickly understand the merits of providing them to others, including their future students. In this short video, some of our students explain these things in their own words:

In addition to the experiences with the Popular Musicianship class, I’ve been following the growing body of research that supports the value of vernacular music experiences in the education of young people. Here are a few articles I’ve written in which I review some of this research:

  • Woody, R. H. (in press). Vernacular musicianship: Moving beyond teenage popular music. In E. Costa-Giomi & S. J. Morrison (Eds.), Research perspectives on the national standards. National Association for Music Education. [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2012). Playing by ear: Foundation or frill? Music Educators Journal, 99(2), 82-88. [abstract] [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2011). Willing and able: Equipping music educators to teach with popular music. The Orff Echo, 43(4), 14-17.
  • Woody, R. H. (2007). Popular music in school: Remixing the issues. Music Educators Journal, 93(4), 32-37. [excerpt]

And here are some of my favorite research studies addressing aspects of vernacular musicianship:

  • Allsup, R. E. (2003). Mutual learning and democratic action in instrumental music education. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 24-37. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S. (1995). Of garage bands and song-getting: The musical development of young rock musicians. Research Studies in Music Education, 4, 12-20. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236. [abstract]
  • Davis, S. G. (2005). “That Thing You Do!” Compositional processes of a rock band. International Journal of Education & the Arts(6)16. Retrieved from
  • Davis, S. G., Blair, D. V. (2011). Popular music in American teacher education: A glimpse into a secondary methods course. International Journal of Music Education, 29(2), 124-140. [abstract]
  • Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. [publisher]
  • Jaffurs, S. E. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 189-200. [abstract]
  • McGillen, C., & McMillan, R. (2005). Engaging with adolescent musicians: Lessons in song writing, cooperation and the power of original music. Research Studies in Music Education, 25, 36-54. [abstract]
  • Woody, R. H., & Lehmann, A. C. (2010). Student musicians’ ear playing ability as a function of vernacular music experiences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(2), 101-115. [abstract] [excerpt]

How Practicing Less Can Foster Musical Growth

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

As a teacher and a parent, I’ve had to remind (nag?) many young musicians about the need to practice. And I continue to advise other teachers and parents on strategies to encourage more of it. So I’m not of the belief that excessive practicing is some kind of epidemic among music students, and I’m not about to deliver the message that practice is not that important after all. I do, however, believe that most musicians can make their practicing more efficient. In doing so, they can give themselves a motivational boost, and free up time in their lives for other activities that also can advance their musicianship.

Although the amount of practice done on one’s musical instrument (including the voice, as for singers) is likely the single greatest contributor to performance success, it’s not just a matter of logging time on that instrument. Researchers who have studied music performance expertise have defined practice as an activity that is effortful, usually done in isolation, and specifically designed to improve skills (Lehmann & Jørgensen, 2012). To get the full benefits of practice, musicians must enter it with a well-developed plan and a focus on tackling the problems that stand between them and their performance goals.

So as important as practice is, how could less of it ever be a key to musical growth? First consider the motivational realities of practicing. Because it can be difficult solitary work focused on weaknesses, it’s usually extrinsically motivated. It’s like dieting or leaving your bed at 6:00am for a treadmill at the gym. Though practice is not an enjoyable task, musicians understand the value of it, and know it must be done. Some people who’ve made music their life’s work can come to feel an inner pressure to practice. Constantly thinking about all that they should be practicing—scales, fundamentals drills, ear playing, technical exercises, etudes, repertoire—they may believe that they’re never getting in enough time. An obsessive orientation toward practice has been linked to feelings of guilt and anger, and an overall dissatisfaction with one’s musical life (Bonneville-Roussy et al., 2011).

Even with the will to do it, large amounts of practice come with other risks as well. The physical toll may lead to overuse injuries to instrumentalists and vocal nodes in singers. These conditions will stunt the benefits of practice and can eventually force a stoppage of all music making so the body can recover. Also, early-bird and night-owl practicers should make sure that the schedules they keep are not interfering with the efficacy of their practice. A growing body of research has established that sleep is crucial for new musical psychomotor skills to become permanent (Duke & Davis, 2006; Simmons, 2012). From one day to the next, musicians can lose some of their newly acquired skill without the memory consolidation that happens with adequate sleep.

Instead of trying to carve out more time in the day, musicians can excel by making modest levels of practice more productive (see Jørgensen, 2004, for a review of strategies). Efficient practicing begins with thoughtful goal setting. Not only should musicians enter practice sessions with a plan for the sequence of activities (e.g., 1. warmup, 2. run scales, 3. work problem spots in concert pieces, etc.), they should target aspects of performance where improvement is sought. Broad goals like “I want to sound better” are not nearly as helpful as specific ones, such as “I want even rhythms on arpeggios in both fast and slow tempos.” Efficient practice also demands that potential distractions are eliminated. Of course this can be quite a challenge in our age of smart phones and iPads. While these devices do offer apps that can be used constructively in practice, they also can tempt with the diversions of social media and games, among other things.

Maintaining mental focus is critical as musicians allocate their attention among various tasks. Conscious effort is required to execute new skills, while simultaneously monitoring what is heard and felt during performance. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, they must choose strategies to address deficiencies. Error detection and correction is a special hallmark of expert practicers, as compared to novices (e.g., Duke, Simmons, & Cash, 2009). These are the processes during practice in which musicians serve as their own teachers. They must evaluate their music, diagnose performance problems, and prescribe solutions in real-time. None of these is an easy task by itself, let alone while doing them all concurrently.

Considering the mental energy required for effective practice, it’s no wonder that so many opt instead for the ineffective approach of mindless repetition! The most focused experts are subject to mental fatigue, especially when trying to power through a marathon practice session. This is why several shorter sessions spread throughout a day (i.e., distributed practice) is a better option than a single prolonged session (massed practice). Distributed practice is employed by many who go on to reach the highest levels of performance expertise. However, even among the most advanced musicians, who are careful to take breaks between sessions, about two hours per day is an optimal amount of practice; about four hours is the single day max. These figures are based on a landmark study by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993), who reported that the training practices of elite musicians were similar to those of professional athletes and chess masters.

Choosing to focus on practice quality over quantity can free up time for other music activities away from the instrument, which ultimately can make practice more effective. For example, score study is a useful exercise done by classical musicians to become familiar with compositions they are preparing for performance. And musicians can always benefit by increasing the amount of music listening they do. Listening is a primary means by which we encode into memory what “good music” sounds like. It is how we build the aural perceptual skills needed to accurately evaluate our own music production during practice. Especially when it comes to listening, time not practicing is not lost time in the pursuit to improve musicianship.

There are no shortcuts around practice on the path to musical expertise. But I encourage music teachers to not just tell their students to do it, but instruct them how to do it efficiently. And I implore more advanced musicians to not get caught up in an “arms race” of practicing, thinking that more is always better. The constant struggle to find practice time can cause stress, and excessive practice can take a toll physically and motivationally. By focusing on quality over quantity, musicians can avoid burnout, enjoy their musical lives more, and maximize their growth.


Bonneville-Roussy, A., Lavigne, G. L., & Vallerand, R. J. (2011). When passion leads to excellence: The case of musicians. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 123-138.

Duke, R. A., & Davis, C. M. (2006). Procedural memory consolidation in the performance of brief keyboard sequences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(2), 111-124.

Duke, R. A., Simmons, A. L., & Cash, C. D. (2009). It’s not how much; it’s how: Characteristics of practice behavior and retention of performance skills. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 310-321.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Jørgensen, H. (2004). Strategies for individual practice. In A. Williamon (ed.), Musical excellence: Strategies and techniques to enhance performance (pp. 85–104). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehmann, A. C., & Jørgensen, H. (2012). Practice. In G. E. McPherson & G. F. Welch (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of music education, volume 1. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199730810.013.0041

Simmons, A. L. (2012). Distributed practice and procedural memory consolidation in musicians skill learning. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(4), 357-368.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: Photographer Zach Goldstein of

Music as an Elixir for Your Brain

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

ImageAdmittedly I keep watch for such things, but recently I’ve seen quite a few internet headlines about the benefits of music to the brain. For example, I’ve read online that practicing a musical instrument boosts motor and sensory brain development, that “uplifting music” enhances brain capacity, and that children who are “not musically inclined” can gain stronger brains with early music lessons. These kinds of media reports are usually welcomed sights for musicians, music teachers, and arts advocates. We personally experience the power of music, and know how it informs the way we think about the world around us. Hearing about musical brain research is affirming to us.

There are, however, some implicit problems with claims that musical brains are better than other brains. For one, there are multiple types of musicians whose skills can differ greatly. For instance, most formally trained musicians focus on technique development and performance from notation, whereas never-had-a-lesson vernacular musicians often improvise and playing by ear. Surely the brains of these two kinds of musicians develop very differently. More generally, findings of brain research are not easily communicated because the research itself is complex and detail oriented. Each study has limitations that must be considered when interpreting its results. Each one addresses only a small aspect of brain function, and contributes just a bit more to a body of literature that’s useful in answering bigger questions.

Such limitations can be lost when media writers (and bloggers!) share research in ways that a general readership will find interesting. Consider a recent study which scanned the brains of formally trained musicians—professionals and university-level music students—who began their training before the age of 7 (Steele, Bailey, Zatorre, & Penhune, 2013). Compared to later-trained musicians and non-musicians, the early-trained musicians had greater white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum. This important finding can be difficult to apply practically to musicians and to parents of youngsters in music lessons. The first internet report I saw about this study did not really hit the mark with its opening line, “If you played the recorder in first grade, you should thank your parents and music teacher now.” Obviously the vast majority of children who played recorder in elementary school have not continued to become professionals or music majors, and thus not likely recipients of the brain benefits identified in the research.

A recent TEDTalk by neuroscientist Molly Crockett titled “Beware Neuro-Bunk” addresses inaccurate brain claims by media and advertisers. They capitalize by just mentioning the brain in an article title or using a picture of a brain on product packaging. “Do you want to sell it?” she asks, then “put a brain on it.” Inaccuracies can result from the fact that the same brain part can perform multiple functions. Borrowing one of Crockett’s examples, consider brain scans which suggest that music activates the anterior insula, a part of the brain linked to pleasure and love (e.g., Brown, Martinez, & Parsons, 2004). If music activates the insula, and the insula is associated with pleasure and love, then we have brain evidence that music produces happiness, right? Well, unfortunately the insula is also known to be involved in feelings of disgust and pain!

Good scientists are careful to address such points in their research reports. In their write-ups, however, they are also entitled to discuss plausible interpretations of their data. They may draw from past psychological literature to offer a theory. (Note, Brown et al., 2004, used interviews with their participants to further establish that music elicits positive feelings.) Researchers are usually judicious in discussing their findings, and clearly indicate when they’re being speculative. In a typical media report, quotes from researchers are the most restrained and carefully worded statements of the entire piece.

When people overlook important details, it can lead to some pretty fantastic claims about the benefits of music, such as the so-called “Mozart effect” of the 1990s. The original study found that college students did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to sitting in silence or hearing a relaxation tape (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993). This very specific result somehow morphed into a “music makes kids smarter” movement that was embraced by many in the field of music education. In a grand display of irony, one governor aspired to raise the intelligence of his state through a rather misinformed initiative, proposing a law that a Classical music CD be issued to the parents of every newborn baby. As much as I support broadening the musical exposure of people, I’m not in favor of doing so under the guise of improving things like general intelligence, mathematical understanding, and standardized test scores. The wave of excitement for the Mozart effect eventually receded, as other researchers were unable to replicate the study. Perhaps also, people saw the folly of using music to improve math knowledge, instead of…well, simply offering better math instruction. The current brain-based music claims are not going unchallenged either. University of Toronto psychologist Glenn Schellenberger has been an outspoken critic of efforts to present music lessons as intelligence boosters. While emphasizing the value of music education, he asserts that to desire it for any transfer effects beyond music “is a complete waste of time.”

Perhaps a good starting point is applying some common sense to claims that music affects other abilities. In other words, if music does improve a certain cognitive function, is there reasonable explanation for it? For example, another recent study found that school-based instrumental music instruction improved the verbal memory skills of children (Rodin, Kreutz, & Bongard, 2012). Verbal memory has to do with how well people commit to memory words that they hear. The music instruction in the study included singing, rhythmic clapping, and pitch identification exercises—all activities that involve listening. In explaining their findings, the researchers point to similarities in the brain’s auditory processing of speech and musical sounds.

Musicians don’t enter the profession to raise their IQ or improve their visual-spatial reasoning. People get involved with music for the musical benefits. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think musicians and arts advocates are best served by promoting the artistic and expressive outcomes of music experience. A couple of the recent brain-based music articles have included this quote by McGill University musician-neuroscientist Dan Levitin: “There are benefits to having a society where more people are engaged with the arts, so even if music instruction doesn’t make you a better mathematician or a better athlete, even if it only gives you the enjoyment of music, I think that is a good end in and of itself.” I couldn’t have said it better.


Brown, S., Martinez, M. J., Parsons, L. M. (2004). Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems. Neuroreport, 15, 2033-2037.

Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Roden, I., Kreutz, G., & Bongard, S. (2012). Effects of a school-based instrumental music program on verbal and visual memory in primary school children: A longitudinal study. Frontiers in Psychology 3:572. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00572.

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Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


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