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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 7

Neuroscience Working for Music

by Lucie Renaud / April 26, 2004

Version française...

For 50 years Jean-Paul Despins has taught music and the means to transmit it to generations of students at Montreal's Le Plateau school, Université Laval in Quebec City, and now at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal). He is the embodiment of the ever-young professor: sparkling eyes, often teasing, communicative, and given to hearty laughter. One senses the fever to teach that continues to possess him, whether he's convincing one person or a whole class of aspiring teachers--his mission being the need to rethink the basic premises of teaching music in elementary school. He's extremely vocal about the problems he perceives in the educational system. For the last 20 years he has campaigned militantly to have neuroscience integrated into the teaching of music.

Emotion governs reason

Despins stresses the need to put emotion back into the vocabulary of musical education. "Teaching places too much emphasis on cognitive learning, without calling on emotion, despite the fact that we know emotion governs reason. People can't learn on the basis of negative behaviour, and therefore of negative emotions. If I ask you to play a piano sonata movement that you've learned, you'll play the one you like best. You'll have forgotten the one you didn't like. We have to throw off this constraint, this habit of intellectualizing everything without supplying any emotional input."

Two major neuroscience specialists, Jean-Pierre Changeux and Antonio R. Damasio, are currently working on the question of the emotional input in cognitive learning. Changeux is a neurobiologist and chair of France's National Consultative Committee on Ethics. He is also the author of Raison et plaisir. In his view, every brain is composed uniquely of cells and molecules. They constitute a complex network, with connecting points called axons that allow thoughts to form and information to circulate. At the same time, the brain supplies hypotheses and compensatory systems to validate this information. For example, if a child interprets information correctly, his parent (or teacher) praises him. This association resurfaces when the same type of reasoning recurs. Damasio heads the neurology department of the University of Iowa. In two of his books, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain and Looking for Spinoza, he has stated that being rational doesn't automatically imply cutting oneself off from emotions. The brain that thinks, calculates, and makes decisions is no different from the brain that laughs, cries, loves, and feels pleasure. Emotions aren't a luxury; they are basic to all reasoning.

In Despins' view, the teacher's primary mission is to transmit these emotions. "Children are a little like animals. They understand the teacher through their eyes. If the teacher doesn't transmit any emotion, the child will always have problems." However, learning situations aren't designed to suit all children. Teachers can help them learn, but mustn't force them. This is where the ability to read behaviour comes in--to be able to anticipate a student's reactions, rather than simply react to them.

Not everyone is equal in a learning situation

Sexual differences also affect learning. "You have to understand the biological basis," explains Despins. "Everyone is equal, it is said, but this is false. You may be able to reach the same goal, but by different paths. Whether in French class, mathematics, or music, we see that boys learn differently, more three-dimensionally. These givens, although well established by researchers, are ignored in teaching music." By insisting on teaching subjects that require fine motor skills, boys are pushed to the point of revolt, while girls don't develop their spatial side. "When you unknowingly produce hypertrophy somewhere, you produce the opposite effect somewhere else."

The aural image is all-important

The study of various neurosciences has established that all musical learning requires the aurar image (the ability to imagine sounds) to be developed long before the motor image (the ability to imagine doing something). Professor Despins deplores the way children are often introduced to music through the recorder. "Right away an instrument is put into children's hands, without knowing whether they can hear and judge correctly. In the 1960s crates filled with recorders were bought for schools. This ruined their musical ear. Today, thanks to foetal research, we know that really young children adapt very badly to high-pitched sounds and that the nervous system reacts better to low and medium frequencies. That's why Professor Despins proposes a two-phase system of musical instruction. In phase one, children sing during the first two years while simultaneously studying movements based on the Dalcroze system of musical education. These two complementary aspects of learning are designed to enrich the aural image while developing children's sense of rhythm by using the whole body. It's only in the second phase, with the aural image well in place, that children begin to study with Orff instruments. This method is supported by the research of Alain Berthoz in France and France Simard at UQAM. Researchers have shown that learning takes place more quickly, whatever the instrument, when the child sings the melodies before playing them. "The ear sees more than the eye hears," concludes Professor Despins.

Neuroscience is here to stay, he points out. "Comprehending the development of a child isn't what it was in the 1980s, when people talked of left and right hemispheres of the brain, or of visuals and auditives. These ideas were poorly understood. They were used by people who didn't know enough about neurology or used it to make money by publishing books riddled with mistakes." All that needs to be done now is to lobby actively and continue to convince teachers, one by one.

[translated by Jane Brierley]

Version française...

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