Information Age Education
   Issue Number 53
November, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

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The Biological Relevance of Music

 “Song is the slowing down of speech in order to savor nuance.” (Marshall McLuhan; Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar; 1911–1980.)

Volitional Movement in Organisms

The principal task of a brain is to plan, execute, and predict movement. Plants don't have a brain because they're not going anywhere of their own volition, so they don't even need to know where they are. What's the point of knowing that other plants have better access to sunshine and nutrients or that a logger is approaching if you can't do anything about it? But if an organism has the capacity for volitional movement, it needs sensory and attention systems to alert it to dangers/opportunities, decision and memory systems to determine an appropriate response, and a motor system to regulate movement.
Our brain has an elegantly simple system to regulate all physical and psychological movement (including the movement of symbolic information between sender and receiver): it combines specific sequences of a relatively small number of basic movements to create more complex movements. For example, five basic arm/hand/finger movements—reach, grasp, elevate, retract, tip—execute the action of drinking water from a glass.

But what's amazing is that five letters—D-R-I-N-K—can verbally represent that five step action, and that Ben Johnson's metaphoric lyrics and melody "Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I will pledge with mine" can musically transform a solo nutritional necessity into a human bonding phenomenon. We thus can almost limitlessly sequence selections of perhaps a couple dozen basic appendage movements, 26 letters, 5-12 musical scale tones, and 10 digits to create the wonderful complexities of human thought and behavior.

We Add Style and Grace

But we don't only simply move, we also seek to move with style and grace, so the aesthetics of movement that define the arts add an important dimension to human identity and behavior—arm movements with a violin bow, finger movements on a keyboard, brush movements on a canvas, actors' and dancers movements on a stage.
Consider the difference between language and song. Articulate speech compresses an extended thought into a stream of rapidly moving phonemic sounds that transmit information. The spoken message identifies key objects (nouns) and events (verbs) that are then clarified by adjectives and adverbs, and syntactically positioned by prepositions and conjunctions. Variations in volume and tone are typically used in order to increase the flow of information.

Conversely, song communicates how we feel about a unit of information. Songs can communicate an emotionally strong message of love and hate, of commitment and alienation, of opportunity and danger by slowing down the flow of the message (extending the vowels, repeating phrases). This permits the singer to use such musical properties as melody, rhythm, volume, timbre, and instrumental accompaniment to insert powerful emotional overtones into such primal messages as ‘I love you’ or ‘I reject war’ or ‘Don’t abandon me.’ Such emotional overtones are much more difficult to insert into speech—adjectives and adverbs typically being a poor substitute for musical properties. 

Articulate speech and writing thus provide useful information, but song and the rest of the arts communicate how we feel about that information. Information without affect is psychologically meaningless. Music and other manifestations of the arts are thus central to a qualitative human life (Sylwester, 2007).

Where Is Music Processed in Our Brain?

The conventional wisdom had been that language was processed in the left hemisphere and music in the right hemisphere. Neuroimaging research has now discovered considerable hemispheric overlap in how our brain processes language and music. It makes sense. All forms of physical and psychological movement are functionally and biologically interrelated, and so draw on widespread processing systems. All need to be developed during our youth, and maintained throughout life.

Music typically enters a child’s life before other forms of movement and expression are functional. Motherese is the term commonly used for the initial high-pitched, exaggerated, repetitive, melodic communication format that parents use to engage their child’s attention. The infant doesn’t initially understand the words we use, but simply attends to the verbal and musical communication patterns and rhythms. The joy infants typically express during this interaction encourages parents to continue motherese until articulate speech emerges. What’s important about this introduction is that children learn best through observing and replicating the behavior of another person, and learning is enhanced when such interactive behavior is aesthetically grounded. Oral communication thus begins with music, and we often return to music when words alone fail to adequately communicate our message (Sylwester, 2010).

Since song enhances the development of our vocal system, and instrumental music enhances the development of our arm/leg movement systems, it’s important that our culture’s formal and informal education systems incorporate explicit music instruction in as many ways as possible. The continuing decline of music instruction in K-12 education is thus a biological tragedy, given that it’s occurring just as credible cognitive neuroscience research is discovering its developmental significance.

Recent Research Resources

The July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind contains Diana Deutsch’s excellent synthesis (“Speaking in Tones”) of recent educationally significant research discoveries on the underlying neurobiology of the overlapping relationship between our brain's language and music processing systems. See Deutsch (7/29/2010), and learn more about Diana Deutsch and her other work at

The August 14, 2010 issue of Science News similarly contains a very informative 16 page special section on the underlying neurobiology of music and its development: A Mind For Music. See (Quill, 2010).

Carl Zimmer’s column (The Brain) in the December 2010 issue of Discover Magazine discusses the issue of whether music is an essential adaptation that strengthens social bonds or simply a fortunate biological accident (or as cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker put it – auditory cheesecake). See

Two recent excellent books provide an informative non-technical background of the nature of music in human life:

In The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (2006), Steven Mithen leads readers through the considerable evidence from archeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and musicology that supports the growing belief that musical capabilities within early humans led to language (the opposing belief being that music is basically a pleasant evolutionary by-product of human language).

Mithen is an early pre-history scholar, and his book makes demands on readers with a limited background in the several research areas it explores. Notes and references comprise almost 100 pages of the 400-page book. Still, its breadth, passion, and conversational writing make it fascinating and informative for those who are disturbed by the recent reduction in music education, and realize that they must initially convince educational leaders that the concept of language encompasses music.

For example, language and music are related in that both can be vocal (as in speech and song) and gestural (as in sign language, instrumental music, and dance), and both can exist in a written format. Music and language are both a product of body/head movements that transmit information from one brain to another. Both music and language are hierarchical in that acoustic elements (words, tones) combine into phrases (utterances, melodies) that can further combine into larger entities (stories, symphonies). These and other similarities are possible because of specific related brain properties that Mithen explains and explores to support his belief in the co-evolution of our music and language capabilities.

Daniel Levitin approaches the music/language issue from a career that led him from session musician to sound engineer to record producer to neuroscientist to his current position as a professor of the psychology of electronic communication. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006) is a marvelous book for folks with a reasonable understanding of music who want to understand its underlying neurobiology—what occurs within our brain when we're listening to or making music.

Levitin rejects the widespread belief that music is something experts do, and that the rest of us should simply appreciate their musical virtuosity. He argues rather that music is an innate human property that develops as easily in children as other forms of language. Preschool children playfully explore the elements of both music and language. Schools then develop basic articulate language skills beyond their informal beginnings, but most schools don't do the same for music skills and comprehension that must be explicitly taught.

Levitin thus begins his book with an intriguing informative introduction to the elements of music (rhythm, pitch, melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, harmony) that most of us should have learned in school but didn't. He connects these elements to specific well-known musical works from classical to jazz to hip-hop (and to almost everything in between).

He further connects these musical elements to the appropriate brain systems and functions—demonstrating in the process that music integrates our brain's emotional, rational, and movement systems in a way that no other activity does. Music is thus central to the development and maintenance of our brain.


Deutsch, Diana (7/29/2010). Speaking in tones: Music and language partner in the brain. Scientific American Mind. Retrieved 11/1/2010 from

Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Dutton.

Mithen, S. (2006). The singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind, and body. Cambridge MA: Harvard.

Quill, Elizabeth (8/14/2010). A mind for music. Science News. Retrieved 11/1/2010 from

Sylwester, R. (2007.) The adolescent brain: Reaching for autonomy. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

Sylwester, R. (2010). A child’s brain: The need for nurture. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

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