“How neuroscience can benefit the learning and performance of music” Really?

Whenever I see a title such as “How neuroscience can benefit the learning and performance of music” I end up with the same question: really.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper. In the press release there is written:

Inette Swart of North-West University, South Africa shows how incorporating training in psychology into the music education system could be beneficial, particularly to those learners who have experienced traumatic events.

Ok, but training in psychology is not really the same as neuroscience and what do traumatic events have to do with it?

Neuroscientific research indicates that the right hemisphere of the brain, where the earliest-forming parts of the developing self and identity originate, appears to contribute most to the emotional meaning of music. The highly impressionable and malleable right-brain is also where early traumatic experiences are imprinted.

Ok… getting a bit sceptic because this is being put way too blunt and my left-right brain myth detector starts ringing, but maybe wrongly as this is not really the same story. And the article is referring to Alan Schore who published quite a lot about this. I have to admit I’m no expert on where in the brain our trauma’s are located – any help welcome – but Schore also seems to be perpetuating the L-R myth too besides the right-brain-trauma-link.

But more important: why do we need to know this and how should we alter our teaching based on this insight?

Thus, teachers should consider the role of music in a learner’s life and use this to their advantage in the teaching strategy, Swart says. For learners who have suffered significant trauma, it is particularly important to understand what role music fulfils in their lives, what best motivates them, and how their goals and reasons for participation in music might differ from a teacher’s expectations of them.

Right. We can have a big discussion now if this is a pedagogical good idea, but let’s stick to the question: did we need the brain explanation for this? Imho, still: no.

While memory for music is acquired and assessed through many different neural pathways, the processing of information involves brain structures — most notably, the amygdala and hippocampus — that are also involved in processing memories of fear. Neurons that fire together form connections and are likely to be retrieved together once an associated memory is recalled. This process is important in the memorization of music and also has implications for consciously separating the experience of fear and fear memories from the experience of learning and performing music.

Yeah, ok, but what does this mean. No, really?

To reduce the chances of debilitating stage fright patterns becoming established in previously traumatized learners, music performance should be associated with the anticipation of positive experience, Swart suggests. Such learners may benefit from practicing the art of performing in environments where they feel relatively safe, before playing at more important concerts or competitions.

Oh, I see. But what about the amygdala and hippocampus? Btw, I knew this part already. No, really!

Inette Swart said: “Music has great potential for providing emotionally and relationally reparative experiences, particularly, but not exclusively, to previously disadvantaged learners. Facilitating neural change takes discipline, while intersubjective models of human behavior, such as those proposed by neuropsychoanalyst Dr. Allan Schore, have shown clearly that human actions and development do not occur in isolation. It is time that this discipline becomes a shared societal responsibility.”

So we end up with the message: if you have had a bad experience you may end up with stage fright so teachers need to make sure you have some positive experiences and everything we do happens in interaction with others.

Now, please tell me: where did we need the brain for this?

But maybe I’m a bit too harsh. This was only the press release, what about the scientific article? Well check the abstract and try to answer the question yourself:

As advancements in neuroscience increasingly illuminate the traditional understanding of the human mind, many of the new insights are also of relevance to musicians as well as to music pedagogy. Especially the greater understanding of how intersubjective processes are integral to the development of the right brain has shown how, according to the neuropsychoanalyst Allan Schore, right-brain models can bridge the fields of psychiatry, music and trauma. Following a short introduction, the article discusses the development of ego boundaries and their relevance to young aspiring musicians as well as the close relation to self-esteem. This is followed by a short explanation of the psychodynamic processes underlying interpersonal interaction and relation. Right-brain function in development and trauma is discussed and its links to music are highlighted; the issue of fear and learned helplessness in musicians is also considered briefly. A discussion on the impact of fear on musicians’ memory follows. The paper concludes by showing that, while brain pathology can be associated with creativity, creative processes in and of themselves are not pathological. Throughout, special reference is made to aspects that have particular relevance to previously disadvantaged music learners.

So we end up with a Journal of Music Research in Africa published by Routledge spreading insights about the brain and music that are… well probably wrong and selling us new stuff we actually already knew and where we don’t need the brain explanation for.

I don’t want to scapegoat mrs Swart who wrote the article. I only used her article to show something that I am seeing way too often. The only solution is just one question: do you need the brain for this claim?

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