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Music is the food of intelligent life?
September 20, 2006 10:02 PM   Subscribe

Music makes you smarter if you get an early start. Certainly debatable given the incredibly small sample, but perhaps it's a prelude to an emerging 21st-century collaborative scientific suite or symphony that can explain why we love music so much.
posted by persona non grata (22 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Brain activity was studied with magnetoencephalography – which measures magnetic fields in the brain – while the children listened to two types of sounds: a violin tone and a white noise burst.

Analysis showed that across all children, larger responses were seen to violin tones than to the white noise, indicating that more brain resources were put to processing meaningful sounds.


Of course, "meaningful" implies those things to which we devote more brain resources. So we devote more brain resources to those things to which we devote more brain resources.

In other news, people reading MetaFilter devote more brain resources to reading text than staring at the blue background.

Next: Effects of a walk in the park vs. solitary confinement on emotional development.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:34 PM on September 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


We love music so much because it makes us smarter if we get an early start? Or according to Darwin, because it gets us laid? Meh, everything was sex with that guy...
posted by scheptech at 10:48 PM on September 20, 2006


So we devote more brain resources to those things to which we devote more brain resources.

While I take the point about being cautious about assigning too much meaning to brain activity, I think it's also possibly to far to go to assume the observation is completely tautological. There are real differences between the content of a violin tone and white noise, and there are apparently real differences in the physiological responses. That's not really earth-shattering, but it's interesting.
posted by weston at 10:50 PM on September 20, 2006


There are real differences between the content of a violin tone and white noise

It's a simple as: a violin tone is patterned/organized data which the brain devotes 'activity' to recognizing/processing. White noise by definition contains no information to be processed.
posted by scheptech at 10:54 PM on September 20, 2006


RTFA shithead. I'm off to bed.
posted by persona non grata at 10:58 PM on September 20, 2006


Eponysterical comment.
I read the article. I didn't realize I was supposed to agree with it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:05 PM on September 20, 2006


Sorry, that was very very uncalled for and not in the spirit of MetaFilter. Please read the essay that I linked to. It takes time and thought but that is what we are here having and wasting, no?

Sorry for being aggressive. It really isn't my style. I just really, really love music and think it can save us all in the end.
posted by persona non grata at 11:12 PM on September 20, 2006


RTFE I guess. It's interesting.
posted by persona non grata at 11:15 PM on September 20, 2006


Here's a video of a 4-year-old drumming which is all over the interwebs right now.
posted by MetaMonkey at 12:10 AM on September 21, 2006


It's a simple as: a violin tone is patterned/organized data which the brain devotes 'activity' to recognizing/processing. White noise by definition contains no information to be processed.

That's the basic conclusion, yes. I'm just thinking that may not make the observation tautological or empty.

For example, our pattern recognizing brains could be set up to try to process the white noise into patterns (and in fact, it's widely asserted that we do this), and you might therefore expect that brain activity wouldn't show as large a difference in listening to white noise or a violin tone.

I also think it's interesting that it you don't have to have the listener listening to, say, the Brandenburg Concertos to make an observable difference in brain activity. Something miles simpler is sufficient. Again, not earth shattering -- it's common sense you don't need complex architectural blueprints to engage the visual attention and processing capabilities of a young mind, fairly simple geometric shapes will do -- but I think it's interesting to be able to have some observed activity to point to with this.

I also think the music connection is particularly interesting because of how sound can be different from other forms of stimuli in an environment. It's very easy nowadays to make a variety of different sounds part of an environment, quite possibly easier than introducing a lot of variety into a visual environment. It's also something you can introduce in the womb, though I'm sure it comes through differently than it sounds out here.
posted by weston at 12:12 AM on September 21, 2006


This is because your favourite white noise sucks.
posted by srboisvert at 1:45 AM on September 21, 2006


I wouldn't read too much into brain scans, but I would pay attention to the previous studies cited in "While such previous studies have shown that school-aged children given music lessons show greater improvement in IQ scores than those given drama lessons".

This is fairly obvious in a classroom: the kids who take music lessons are smart. They're also the ones whose parents can afford music lessons, and presumably also books at home, a quiet study space, an academic role model, family trips, and a hundred other creative outlets that poor kids don't get.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 1:57 AM on September 21, 2006


weston : "For example, our pattern recognizing brains could be set up to try to process the white noise into patterns (and in fact, it's widely asserted that we do this), and you might therefore expect that brain activity wouldn't show as large a difference in listening to white noise or a violin tone. "

I agree with you, but aren't the sounds of instruments made to imitate the musical sound of a human voice? I was told by an English professor such a theory—where instruments like violins were originally created to mimic the human voice—is an attempt to explain why musical instruments sound the way they do in the first place.

So wouldn't human children naturally recognize sounds akin to human voices as opposed to white noise? Of course, the study doesn't mention how young the children are, maybe this wouldn't occur if they ran the same tests on infants. If they could even get past the ethical issues of blasting infants with white noise (which I wouldn't recommend).

Personally, I think this is another case of science proving what I've always taken for basic common sense. Now, obviously, there's evidence to back the common sense up, which is great. But I think every child should learn how to play an instrument, that's an oppurtunity I never had.

hoverboards don't work on water : "This is fairly obvious in a classroom: the kids who take music lessons are smart. They're also the ones whose parents can afford music lessons, and presumably also books at home, a quiet study space, an academic role model, family trips, and a hundred other creative outlets that poor kids don't get."

How could we get those poor kids into more creative outlets? Seriously, I'd like know.
posted by Colloquial Collision at 4:32 AM on September 21, 2006


In addition to Metamonkey's above link to the funky 4 year old, here's a 3-year-old metalhead, a 10-year-old with some fancy chops, and a surprisingly solid 2-year-old with a good feel for slower tempos.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:13 AM on September 21, 2006


Colloquial -

The kids in question are trained in the Suzuki method. In Dr. Suzuki's book, he discusses that his method is based on the notion that every child is able to learn their mother tongue - there is no talent component to learning your first language. Everyone learns it. So Suzuki it relies on the same skill in teaching kids to play violin by ear that every child already has to learn the language of their parents.

The idea that the violin imitates the human voice may be true (sounds a little high though, my bet would be with the cello or viola for matching vocal frequencies closer), but it may be that lead instruments like the violin, trumpet and a distorted electric guitar, which all sound remarkably similar despite their physical and acoustical differences produce sounds in a frequency range that we hear the best or in which slightly different frequencies sound more distinct to our ears.

However, I suspect the results of the study would be the same if instead of testing music, you tested kids who were trained to act or recite poetry instead of trained to play the violin. The Suzuki method is just memorization and repetition.

To colloquial's point about poor kids access to music, Suzuki also requires the parents to be present at the lessons and to work every day with the student at home - the parent is part of the lesson. That's not practical for poorer people who have to work, are single mothers, etc.

That said, though, every kid is provided with one instrument for free - their voice. There is no reason why poorer schools can't have choir. Most choral music is public domain, and all you need is a space to do it in. I just don't think the will is there.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:16 AM on September 21, 2006


Air Supply makes you stupider.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:48 AM on September 21, 2006


While I can appreciate music lessons = rich parents, it doesn't follow that rich parents = music lessons. If the researchers did their jobs right and eliminated those other factors (family support, proper nutrition, etc.), then there's a suggestion that something is happening here. What that something might be is the real question.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:03 AM on September 21, 2006


I agree with you, but aren't the sounds of instruments made to imitate the musical sound of a human voice? I was told by an English professor such a theory—where instruments like violins were originally created to mimic the human voice—is an attempt to explain why musical instruments sound the way they do in the first place.

I've heard this as well, from some of my music profs. In any case, it's certainly likely one of the reason we like the aesthetics of the tone is correlated with the kind of activity it produces in the brain. If I were going to reduce conslusions from the observation to any simple explanation, that's the one I'd pick.
posted by weston at 11:25 AM on September 21, 2006


Oh joy, yet another metafilter thread in which people discuss the methodology and results of a study without actually seeing the study results.

(I can't find it on the website of the indicated journal, perhaps it will be in the next issue.)

From what little I can tell from the Telegraph article, they did a pre-test/post-test design. The important fact is not that the brain recognized violin tones, but that the time required for recognition decreased from pre-test to post-test. Also that scores on memory tests improved pre-test to post-test compared with the control group.

Of course, one study does not make or break a theory. You could interpret this to mean that music in specific is good for training intelligence. Or you can go with the broader hypothesis that activity in complex cognitive and motor tasks in childhood builds various types of intelligence. (Never mind the debate about the construct validity of intelligence.)

Beyond that there is not much that you can say about this study without actually reading it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:30 AM on September 21, 2006


It is also worth noting that the broader hypothesis (complex cognitive tasks improve various types of intelligence in kids) explains why similar findings have been claimed for after-school sports, after-school art, and after-school chess.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:33 AM on September 21, 2006


Oh my god! Drum playing babies! Almost restores my desire to reproduce.
posted by footnote at 4:17 PM on September 21, 2006


If you're looking for a broader exolutionary explanation for why humans make art than simply sex selection, check out Frederick Turner's beautiful book: Beauty. A taste... rather than an Amazon link...
posted by kozad at 5:47 PM on September 21, 2006


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