I’m sometimes skeptical of sentences that begin with, “Studies have shown,” or “Polls indicate” or “clinical experiments confirm” because they are so easily manipulated to conform to a particular point of view or bias. (Think “______ News” — your choice.)
Nevertheless, I’d like to offer a “research indicates” that is free of special interest, has no political motive or ax to grind — just an interesting finding that has even more interesting applications in my profession. It has to do with the power of music; in particular, classical music.
At a clinical level, laboratory rats that listen to Mozart seem to get smarter. Compared with other rats that listened to heavy metal, they navigated a maze nearly four times faster. Other tests on the effects of music on living organisms besides humans have shown that special pieces of music (like, for instance, “The Blue Danube”) aid hens in laying more eggs and cows in yielding more milk. Researchers from Canada and the former Soviet Union found that wheat grows faster when exposed to special ultrasonic and musical sounds.
A few years ago, I saw a television documentary about the effects of music on plants. The experimenters set up two terrariums, each containing a variety of plants, and each connected to an audio speaker. Into one terrarium they played classical music, and into the other they played hard rock music. After a time, the plants exposed to the classical music leaned toward the speaker; but, the plants exposed to hard rock music leaned away from the speaker.
Other human studies have consistently shown a link between musical training (especially classical) and higher benchmark and scholastic aptitude test scores. The difference is attributed to the “Mozart Effect,” which has some researchers concluding that exposure to classical music, even for short periods, has beneficial effects on intelligence.
Deep in the brain there is a band of fibers connecting the two hemispheres that, according to scientific studies, grow in size when the brain is exposed to classical music. This increase in size also increases the communication between the two halves of the brain, which in turn increases learning efficiency.
This is all pretty theoretical and undoubtedly varies from person to person, but I must say that the absolute clincher for me that there is something to all of this involves a story of how music helped our greatest president, Thomas Jefferson, write the Declaration of Independence.
When he could not summon the words or phrases he desired, he would stop and play his violin. The music, according to his own words, helped him get the words he sought onto the paper.
I offer myself as evidence both to confirm and perhaps throw a little doubt on this research. I’ve loved classical music all of my life, but no one has ever mistaken me for a genius. Despite an early affinity for Bach and Beethoven, my grades throughout school were above average, but rarely excellent.
Neither my grades nor my IQ scores would qualify me for Harvard, but I give myself an A in music appreciation. When I consider everything that has contributed to my education, it is one of the few continuous strands of growth and learning that I can point to.
I was lucky to grow up in a family surrounded by music and music lovers. I believe that my love affair began when I was just learning to crawl through a house that was alive with music of every kind. It came from a piano that groaned with the practice schedules of four siblings and it lit up a room when an accomplished pianist sat down and played for us. It came from records in the living room that one day featured Debussy, the next Buck Owens, the next a mixture of Broadway tunes, and the next a Puccini opera.
How vividly I recall a certain young boy drifting off to sleep so many nights with a radio near his bed and a thousand violins or a hundred guitars or 76 trombones to transport him to other places and give flight to an active imagination.
I remember also the cartoons of my youth that were accompanied by classical pieces, and I’ve got to believe that there was purpose in the production of those old cartoons.
I’m thankful to the creative genius and the caring souls way back then who knew all about the power of music and knew also that when you touch the mind of a child you affect a lifetime.
Classical music fills my house on weekend mornings, my earphones late into some nights, and my car on long drives through beautiful country. And still, after all these years, it sets my mind to rest and turns my imagination loose all at the same time, just like it did for a certain little boy I recall.
My mother passed along her love of music to all of her children, and I’ve tried to do the same with my daughters and, maybe with a little less emphasis, my students.
Surely if music can help rats better navigate a maze, it can also help young learners find their way through the problems and challenges of their studies.
DAN KIMBER is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@ sbcglobal.net.