Using Your Voice

People often ask me which instrument I play when I first explain my interest in music cognition. Some may see my response, my voice, as a non-answer, but I believe singing or your voice is just a valid an instrument as a violin, piano, or oboe. There is still so much I need to learn about using my instrument, but I am convinced as I continue to read research from Daniel Levitin and, more recently, Cassandra Sheppard and Sophia Efthimiou, that it is a valid instrument for study and for teaching the benefits of music cognition.

Last year, researcher Cassandra Sheppard shared her thoughts and results from a study on singing: Singing for others creates a calm positive energy that seems to make negativity not so present. Singing in a group creates a bond, can synchronize heartbeats, and can harness the strength of the group rather than the weakness of individuals.

Sophia Efthimiou, a singer and music instructor, explains in her TED Talk, “Singing Ourselves Home” that our voice is the only instrument “that’s inside the body”. In one way, using our voice is unique, but in another, it’s an instrument that everyone can use if they engage in the activity. Efthimiou explains that there are very few speaking individuals that have a legitimate inability to sing – you can’t call yourself tone deaf if you are able recognize a song!

So the voice is an instrument, though, it doesn’t fall into any one category of instruments. At the same time, the voice requires many of the same skills that other instruments do. Efthimiou explains,

When we sing, we are consciously controlling our breath and our larynx to create and sustain certain pitches, and we blend that with rhythm and poetry to create songs.

Similar to Efthimiou’s statement that singing is unique as a corporal instrument, singing is also unique as one of the oldest forms of music. In Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, published in 2007, he writes,

In our hunter-gatherer or forager days, we had to band together in order to protect ourselves from predators or enemy tribes and one of the evolutionary forces behind that was singing together around a campfire. And people who sing together experience a release of the chemical oxytocin; and oxytocin causes feelings of trust to be increased and causes you to feel more socially bonded to the people you’re around.

I do have a goal of learning a SECOND instrument in 2018, but I’m finally feeling satisfied that I do already “play” one instrument.

Lindamood-Bell and the Dual Coding Theory

dual coding quote

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Paivio’s theory of dual coding is used extensively at Lindamood-Bell, and the practices of Lindamood-Bell — primarily the benefits to the students — have been published in various peer-reviewed journals.

For students first learning words, or even letters, a clinician will show a letter, tell what the letter is and what sound it makes. The clinician then asks the student to repeat the name of the letter and the sound it makes. And as a final step, the clinician will ask the student to draw the letter in the air right in front of his eyes. So, here we have the combination of visual and auditory learning. The goal is for students to first see words and then concepts in their minds. English, of course, doesn’t play fair, so while the program might start very similar to “Hooked on Phonics”, it progresses to teach students common endings, the schwa, flexing vowels, and other instances when words don’t follow the general rules.

Lindamood-Bell, along with many respected psychologists and educators, recognizes that even when students can recognize words and pronounce them correctly, they still might not be able to comprehend what they’re reading. It could be something simple like the particular text has a lot of vocabulary with which the student is not familiar. The simple solution, then, is to increase his vocabulary. Or, it could be a more complicated issue, such as a learning disorder known as hyperlexia, where students can read, but they can’t form concepts in their mind about what they’re reading. Using the dual coding theory, once again, Lindamood-Bell will either instruct the clinician or the student to read a story out loud (auditory). Then, the clinician will ask the students to act as though they are the directors and what they have just read is a script (visual). “What kind of setting do you see?” “What do the people look like?” “What is the mood of the people in the scene?” Lindamood-Bell wants the students to have such a solid movie in their brains so that when the reading is taken away from them, they can easily recall the facts of the story and be prepared for higher order thinking questions. Depending on the age or grade level, Lindamood-Bell has seen students’ reading levels increased by at least two levels, and at most (from my experience as a clinician), five levels. I am always amazed to see the progress students have made as they near the end of their program.

So, great! I’ve told you how using both auditory cues and visual cues can increase learning when it comes to the basics of word recognition and reading comprehension – speaking, drawing letters, creating images in your mind. How does the dual coding theory work with music education or music cognition?

You’ll have to read my next blog to find out!

Paivio and the Dual Coding Theory

There must be something about McGill University. Daniel Levitin, who I’ve referenced several times in my blogs, is a professor there, and the next cognitive psychologist I’m about to introduce is an alum of the school!

Dr. Allan Urho Paivio
Dr. Allan Urho Paivio

I’d like you all to meet Dr Allan Urho Paivio, at least on paper. He was born in 1925 and passed last year in Ontario, Canada. He earned his PhD in Psychology from McGill University in 1959. Before delving into psychology, his passion was exercise. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Physical Education, also at McGill, and went so far as wining the bodybuilding title, “Mr. Canada”. While McGill University conferred Dr. Paivio’s degrees, it wasn’t the school where he would teach. Instead, Dr. Paivio, found his place at the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario. I regret not learning about him while he was still alive. I’m sure he would have responded to at least one of my emails about his dual coding theory!

Ok, so dual coding theory. Where did I first hear about it? And, what is it?

I’ve been a clinician at Lindamood-Bell for over a year now. In our intensive training on teaching literacy and reading comprehension, Dr. Paivio’s name comes up quite a bit. Daily, we use both visual and auditory teaching methods to help our students recognize and spell words and later to create an image of something they have read which helps them to better comprehend what they have read.

If you’re familiar with the terms “learning styles”, “cognitive overload”, “AVK”, “TIPP”, or “Learning-Character Profile”, you have a good foundation to understand the dual coding theory.

While Dr. Paivio asserts that such a concept was known as early as 500BC, the term did not exist as a psychological or learning construct until the late 1950s when Dr. Paivio began to deconstruct its ideas. To put it plainly, the dual coding theory explains that learning happens best in the presence of both auditory and visual cues.

Continue reading about the dual code theory in my next blog.

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.

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.