Quarter Notes and Fractions

I’m taking a brief break from book reviews to talk about a recent experience I had while working with my student.

While blogging, I also work as a behavioral aide for a behaviorally challenged ten year-old boy at a private school. The school had been without a music teacher for a few months, but last week, they finally hired a new teacher.

In the first class, she taught the students about half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and whole notes.One of the students quickly caught on that the names coincided with fractions that they were currently learning in math!

“Music is math?” he asked confused.

“Yes,” the teacher replied. “There is more math in music than you’ll ever believe!”

Then she continued on having the kids clap in rhythm with the related notes. I couldn’t be happier!

Book Review: Music, Language, and the Brain (Talking Drum)

A third instrument Patel introduces which he describes as “a speech surrogate” and “musical instrument with [a] fixed pitch … used to convey linguistic messages” is the talking drum.

Similar to the Krar, this instrument is also used to communicate in Africa, this time, in West Africa.

 wikipedia commons
Wikipedia Commons

There are a number of tribes who use talking drums and who call the instrument by different names according to their language. Griots, or storytellers, were those who most often used the instrument to pass down oral traditions as well as tell jokes or share moral lessons. Griots are also called jeli, jali, guewel, gawlo, iggawan. You might also be interested to know that these musician storytellers, almost like their own tribe, will only marry others who share the title and talent.

African Music, A People's Art by Francis Bebey
African Music, A People’s Art by Francis Bebey

You can find these storytellers today among the Mande, Fulɓe, Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanian Arab tribes. That may sound like a lot of people, but consider the large green area to the right where they live!

Let’s take a look at this instrument and how it’s played. You can really hear the tones and its speech quality as Mali griot, Baye Kouyate plays a smaller version of the talking drum:

Others have brought this ancient instrument into modern music. Consider Erykah Badu and her song, “My People”. This video starts off blurry, but it clears up at the 30 second mark.


Book Review: Music, Language, and the Brain (Krar)

The next instrument Patel introduces is the krar or “krar speech”. So, first let’s take a look at what Patel says, and then we’ll take a look at where this instrument originates.

krar 1

The researcher who studied this language, Dr. Wedekind, explains, like the krar, Benc’non is “a tone language with five levels and a glide”. The language sounds like a whistle as you’ll see below.

From Wikicommons
krar 2
from http://blog.undr.com/ (modified by me)

If we think of the shape of Ethiopia as the twitter bird turned the other way, think of southwest Ethiopia being the chest or the tummy of the twitter bird. Right in that white patch, you would find a tribe of people, the Gimira, who use “krar speech” or the Bench language to communicate! While not much is known about the Gimira people, we do know that they let their elders or the oldest people in the community decide what is right and wrong based on their understanding of their culture. Such a system can work when there aren’t very many people, but could you imagine having the oldest people in the United States doing the same thing? Think about all the different people there are in the United States. Some have been here for a very long time, and others for a very short time. We have all different kinds of religions and all different kinds of ideas of what is good and bad. For the Gimira people, they’re pretty similar in how they live and in what they believe. They’ve stayed together in the southwest area of Ethiopia for a very long time. In what ways do you think the Gimira government works best? In what ways do you think the Gimira government wouldn’t work?

Below is one video of the Krar. The music is popular beyond Ethiopia. In fact there is a group called the Krar Collective which uses many instruments native to African tribes in the region.

If you’d like to learn more about the Krar or how to play it, check out this link! If you would explore the language of the southwestern Ethiopian people including a description of its 28 consonants and 5 vowels, I highly recommend looking for A Six-Tone Language in Ethiopia: Tonal Analysis of Benčnon (Gimira) by Klaus Wedekind. This article was published in 1983 in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies. You can find the article in JSTOR.

Book Review: Music, Language, and the Brain (Tabla)

I will not pretend to understand music theory to the extent of many of the experts in the field of music cogntion. It is, however, a goal of mine to take a class in music theory and to learn a musical instrument within the next two years.

Rather than discuss in detail the terms I briefly introduced in my previous blog, I will instead move on to the instruments Patel discusses as he presents a comparison and contrast between music and speech.

The first instrument is the Tabla. Patel writes,


I’m guessing that many of you, like me, have never heard of the Tabla before reading this post. Patel provides the above description and follows it up with a definition of each drum. a large drum (Bayan) that sounds with a lower pitch and a smaller drum (Dayan) that sounds with a higher pitch. Still, I think it would be even better to see the Tabla in action.

In the first video, watch then eleven year-old Priyanka Menon playing the traditional kaida with the Tabla. As this website is about music and children, it seemed fitting to see a child passionate about a non-western instrument! In the second video, bringing the Tabla even closer to western culture, watch Mark Ronson play along to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”. I invite you to watch both videos in full to adequately appreciate this instrument.


To me, this instrument almost sounds like a guitar. I hear chords more than just beats. Patel examines this more closely in the linked video. Those sounds the instrumentalist is making at the beginning of the video are called vocables, or speech sounds. In comparing and contrasting the spoken vocables and tabla beats, one can see how the tabla can be useful in researching the similarities of speech and music.

tabla 2

Book Review: Music, Language, and the Brain (Basic Terminology)

Throughout my discussion of Patel’s Music, Language, and the Brain, I will be defining terms, talking about studies referred to by Patel, and discussing future avenues of music. Given that Patel wrote his book in 2008, I also want to look to see if any researchers have pursued some of the future research implications.

First, though, let’s start with the very basics of music and language. In future chapters, Patel does cover the overlap and correlations between music and language; however, he opens his book with one basic fact:

mlb 1

Obviously, we can’t have a discussion without recognizing these are two distinct elements of human nature, and while I won’t further define speech or “linguistic” or music, as I believe they should be self-explanatory, I do feel it’s necessary to have a good understanding of vowels, consonants, pitch contrasts, timbres, and pitches.



Pitch Contrasts


Pitches: So we talked about pitch contrasts, but to really understand contrasts, you need to understand pitch. I thought the Youtube videos below would best demonstrate the meaning. What do you think pitch means, and how do the videos help you understand it?

Book Review: Music, Language, and the Brain (Overview)

I started reading Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel at the end of 2014, and I’m still reading it! There are several times where I’ve taken breaks, but I’m currently reading about forty pages a week, and hope to finish it by the end of February.

MLBFor me, the book has been an extremely challenging read. There are many terms I’ve had to look up and paragraphs I’ve had to reread. At the same time, Patel’s writing has been very insightful. I’ve been able to learn about different types of research relating to relative comparisons and contrasts between language and music. I have also been re-introduced to researchers from my studies in bilingual education and educational psychology. And, I’ve found new researchers whose studies I’m very eager to read and hope to find within their studies implications for my own future research. Finally, it has more than encouraged me to take a class in music theory and learn how to play a musical instrument.

As this reading has been both a challenge and and encouragement to me, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned as a form of reflection and education for others who might never pick up this book.

Profiles in Music Cognition: Daniel Levitin

In the field of music cognition as related to early education, there are no competing interests, unless you consider product manufacturers. I might talk about some of these products in future blogs, but today, I’ll begin with some collaborators.

Today, I’ll be looking at an interview he gave in 2012.
To give you a brief bio of Daniel Levitin, he is a musician turned record producer turned music cognition neuroscientist and author.
As a musician, he played with his own band and then worked with such artists and groups as Sting, Blue Oyster Cult, and Chris Isaac . As a producer, he worked with artists and groups including Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. As a music cognition neuroscientist and author, he is professor and researcher at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.
To date, he has written six books and authored or coauthored over sixty peer-reviewed research articles.
Okay, let’s get to the interview. You can click the links below to read the interview for yourself:

Dan Levitin, Q&A 1, Association for Psychological Science

Dan Levitin, Q&A 2, Association for Psychological Science
I greatly admire the work that Levitin has accomplished, but he tells readers his readers that he is “not a pioneer in the academic study of music. The scientific study of music goes back to Wundt and Fechner (in the 1800s) and Seashore (in the 1940s)”. I might take a look at these early researchers in a future blog.
While most people are drawn to music, Levitin explains that preference for genre or style cannot be tied to one single factor:

“Some of this is cultural, some of it is social, and some of it is personal taste”. Later he adds, “Part of it is what you’re used to, part has to do with emotional associates you hold for the different sensory experiences, and certainly part of it is a genetic propensity for preferring one kind of sensory stimulation to another”.

Perhaps most related to early education, Levitin touches on plasticity,

i.e., that period of child development where the brain is most open for learning new things. Levitin says, “I imagine that there is a critical period for music as there is with language, such that if no input occurs during that critical window, a person would never be able to make sense of music”. Then he goes more into detail. If his quote is a bit too complex, simply know that exposure to music at a young age is very much like exposure to speech. You learn the structure of a sentence by listening to sentences spoken around you. Similarly, you learn the structure of a song by listening to the tempo, rhythm, and tone. Also, like language, music is tied to culture. In other words, the different parts that make up a song in western culture aren’t the same as a song that is created in Africa or Asia.

Levitin explains, “That is, whether you’re raised listening to gospel, punk, country, heavy metal, jazz, or classical, the important point is that they’re all based on the same 12 notes, the same basic chords . . . That means that your brain is configured to understand that system, and to know what to expect in all of these musics and making a transition from classical to rock, for example, is easy in terms of the musical syntax. Our brains function like statistical engines that have calculated the probabilities of chord sequences for the music we were raised with. This leads to expectations and to the possibility of those expectations being either met or violated – the very basis of musical engagement”.
Finally, Levitin discusses long term memory. If you think of a song that was your favorite many years ago, even if you haven’t heard it in a very long time, I bet hearing it once today, you’ll easily recognize the tune and all the lyrics.
So, pause a moment, readers. Think back to your favorite song when you were ten or eleven years old. Now search YouTube for that song. Were you able to sing it word for word? Or, maybe at least you knew the chorus? Did you move to the beat of the song? Perhaps tap your foot or nod your head? That’s also part of recognition. Now, think about when you first heard that song. Where you, and what were you doing? You’ll find that you not only remember the song, but you’ll also remember the happy or sad experiences you had at the age you first fell in love with the song.
Both long term memory and the similarity of learning speech and music is very exciting to me. As I explained in my previous blogs, it is imperative that children begin kindergarten with an idea of what determines a letter and what determines a number. They should also know basic colors and how to count to ten. If we are able to familiarize ourselves with music in the same way that we familiarize ourselves with speech, why not combine the two? If songs bring us back to certain memories in our lives, why not create environments for young children where they are excited, where they are somewhere that is fun and comfortable? During this indirect learning experience, children will learn basic concepts and be better prepared to succeed throughout both primary and secondary school.

Illiteracy and the 3rd Grade

I was not aware, but there are a significant amount of students who are not able to read by the time they reach third grade, or rather there are a significant number who can’t read at the third grade level. Why do education professionals look so closely at third grade? It is at this point that teachers no longer teach their students how to read but instead how to learn by what they’re reading. If students are unable to read, not only do they miss out on the very initial steps of reading to learn, but they continue to fall behind as they progress through school.

Such students are less likely to graduate from high school primarily because they struggle so much to learn in ninth grade where every class depends on extensive reading. Dropping out of high school, these students struggle to find jobs that provide a living wage. The end result is these illiterate individuals are more likely to receive government assistance.

And guess what? Lack of reading skills can be linked to early education. Of course, it’s not necessary to ensure that a three or four year old be able to read a book, but these children who are able to distinguish a letter from a number, who are able to recite the alphabet, and who can count to ten are better prepared to move forward to deciphering words and sentences whereas those who cannot do these simple skills before progressing to kindergarten and first grade begin at a remedial level. Teachers must spend extra time on these basics, and not every teacher will. Recognize that early child education is not intensive schooling. It is preparation to learn, and it is creating an excitement to learn.

Illiteracy affects a student’s self-esteem, concentration, and ability to function outside of school. One study cited that 85 percent of youths in prison could not read, 70 percent of imprisoned adults could not read above the fourth grade level, and as cited above 90 percent of those receiving welfare are unable to read.

I have found that early child education that encourages learning and prepares students to read is essential. Learning to read can begin as early as two or three years old and should be accomplished by the time the child is eight years old or has reached the third grade.

My goal is to use my passion for music cognition and follow the research demonstrating that music can be a component of both early education and the first years of elementary school; can help students with learning to read and calculate basic math problems; and should be an essential part of all forms of education as early as birth through at least third grade.

The Importance of Early Education

During one of my first classes in my master’s program in educational psychology, I interviewed one of the directors of University of Washington’s Institute of Language and Brain Sciences (ILABS). They look at what the youngest humans can and can’t do. At the time, I was really interested in second language acquisition, and I found an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences and coauthored by Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director at ILABS. This study examined 9 month old babies’ perceptions of foreign languages.

Children speak English because they are exposed to English language from birth. Similarly Children who are exposed to Chinese language will speak Chinese. It’s a combination of an innate ability to speak any language and the interaction a parent or family have with the infant.

These 9 month-old infants were exposed to sessions of five hours of Mandarin and later were able to perceive when they were hearing English as opposed to Mandarin. The control group, the infants who were exposed to five hours of English at the same time, were able to perceive the foreign language approximately forty percent less than the experimental group. You can find the article online to read about how this research was completed. I was fascinated that children so young had such a learning capacity, so I eagerly interviewed this researcher.

More recently, I followed the Summit on Early Childhood Education in December 2014. I knew a bit about school readiness, and I could personally attest to the preparation I received by attending both nursery and preschool. This seminar, however, covered much more. Research demonstrated that students who attended a quality pre-kindergarten program had a greater chance of achieving far faster than their peers in spelling, reading, and math.

Longterm effects included a higher percentage of students graduating, owning homes, and earning higher income. Simply put, a program that focuses on preparation to learn is demonstrably successful. And, consider the benefit such a program would have on children whose first language is not English or whose parents never finished elementary or high school!

Unfortunately, many current school preparatory programs’ cost is prohibitive to low-income families. If the benefits of such programs are so great, why deny the least of these access? And, can these programs be improved or even standardized across the country?

Music Cognitive? Why Me?

If you’ve read my about page, you know that music cognition is fairly recent, both as a field in itself and as a concept for me.  To best explain my choice to be a music cognitive with a passion for early childhood learning, I need to start with music.

My interest in music of multiple genres really started with Faith Hill’s “Breathe” and Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance”. Up until that time, I’d never heard of a “cross-over” where an artist will take her song, revise the arrangement, and introduce it to a new genre. Since then, I have switched among country, pop, R&B, hip hop, soul, and funk — finding something in each genre that I have enjoyed.

In 2008, my passion for music intensified. The New Kids on the Block reunited, and Donnie Wahlberg willingly and eagerly introduced fans to the musicians who made up their backing band, the producers and songwriters who helped them create their music, and the artists with whom they collaborated. I learned more about instruments than I ever had before, like the “808” a term I’d heard in many lyrics but never could identify.

Whether in person or via social media outlets, I became intrigued with what happens behind the scenes, especially the required promotion and publicity to make songs popular, worthy of radio play, and necessary for creating a substantial fan base.

In April 2009 I took my first job in the entertainment industry as founder, station manager, and on-air personality of the online NKAirplay Radio. A history in communications helped significantly in this role, and I was given the opportunity to interview multiple musicians including trilingual Canadian R&B artist, Soul; pop artist of 98 degrees, Jeff Timmons; drummer, Chris Coleman; music director and producer, Rob Lewis; George Clinton bandmate, Lawrence LAW Worrell, and Irish hip hop artist, Shaymin. I stayed on with the radio station as their media consultant through the end of 2012 and am pleased to see the station continue to attract listeners and grow their playlist.

In 2011, I became aware of music cognition or the psychology of music. I read physician Oliver Sacks (the inspiration behind the movie Awakenings), Daniel Levitin (a one-time musician and record producer turned neuroscientist), and others to become more familiar with the subject. I knew a little of brain anatomy from my undergraduate course in human anatomy, but there was so much more to know. Neuroscience for Dummies became my greatest friend as did any book I could find on music theory. A background in educational psychology can only take you so far!

Finally, the fall of 2014 brought me face to face with the issue of early childhood education, a topic like brain anatomy that provided a little knowledge). I had no idea the problems that lack of early childhood education brought when children finally entered kindergarten and moved forward. I was shocked at the percentage of children unable to read when they reached third grade. National organizations such as “The First Five Years Fund” is doing its part to lobby the government for funds to expand access to early childhood education including free preschools. I applaud their efforts, but I want to work on a smaller scale. Until I am satisfied that children have access to the quality preparation they need to succeed at the k-12 level, I’m starting with the parents. I know that not every parent homeschools, but homeschooling programs provide excellent material that can be used by any parent or caregiver. And, parents and caregivers are their children’s first teachers.

Let me use my knowledge and my continuing acquisition of skills to help parents of any economical or racial background be those quality teachers that their children need, utilizing music as a fundamental part of those essential lessons.