Reprinted with permission from "The Parent's Guide: Getting the Most
Out Of Your Child's Band or Orchestral Experience" published by The
Selmer Company.
Singing Familiar Songs is Found to
Use Spatial Abilities
Singing appears to be much more than just a fun thing to do; it
seemingly uses a person's spatial intelligence. Researchers in the United
States and New Zealand report in [a 1997] issue [vol. 24, No. 2] of the
English scientific journal "The Psychology of Music" that the simple act
of singing changes the way the brain "thinks" about music. These
findings come on the heels of recent reports showing that piano playing
increases the spatial ability of children. Now it seems that singing uses
the same mental skills.
Spatial intelligence is that aspect of our intelligence that allows
us to make judgments about the three-dimensional world in which we
live. A football player catching a pass relies on spatial intelligence to
judge the trajectory of the ball. An architect uses it to visualize what a
building will look like when it is completed. We all use it every time we
drive a car and have to judge the distance to the car in front of us.
Advanced math courses require good spatial intelligence.
The report tells of a fairly complex experiment that was conducted
to determine how the human brain thinks about music while singing.
The experiment counted on the brain's natural desire to group things
together. For example, if a person goes to the grocery store but forgets
his or her list, he or she will to try to remember what was on the list. The
most common way would be to remember the items according to some
logical groups; say dairy products, meat products, and cleaning products.
Another way would be to remember by menu; if they were having hot
dogs for lunch they would remember hot dogs, buns, baked beans,
mustard and ketchup and then go on to the next meal that is planned.
If you watched this person in the grocery store you could tell how
they had things grouped in their head by the paths they took around the
store. This same logic was used with the singing experiment.
Drs. Robert Cutietta from the University of Arizona and Gregory
Booth from the University of Auckland taught college students to sing
many melodies by hearing and singing them over and over for five
weeks. The melodies were deliberately written to be very similar to each
another. It soon became obvious that the students were grouping the
songs in order to remember them. [However, the students] grouped them
according to a very abstract aspect of music - the shape of the melody -
even though there were many other more obvious ways they could have
been grouped. Melodies with similar patterns of notes going up and
down were grouped together by the students. This happened even though
they had never seen the music for the songs and did not know they were
supposed to group them.
Thus, the students were converting the sounds into an image in their
heads. This image was actually a picture of what the melody would look
like if it were somehow projected on a piece of paper. Interestingly,
trained musicians and non-musicians did it exactly the same way
showing that it is probably a basic way the brain works, not something
that is learned.
These findings help answer a fundamental question about music.
Researchers have long wondered why a person can recognize a song
when it is played in different keys. For example, if "Happy Birthday" is
played in two different keys, the two versions could have no actual notes
in common. Yet almost everyone, regardless of musical training, will
recognize it as the same song. It has long been suspected that the brain
remembers music by the "shape". This research supports that idea.
These findings also add support to music programs for children in
elementary school. Music classes, filled with singing, are often
considered fluff by many school administrators. Now it seems this fun
activity is actually developing a child's spatial ability: an ability
important in everything from driving a car to advanced math.
Reference: Robert Cutietta & Gregory Booth. The Influence of
Metre, Mode, Interval Type, and Contour in Repeated Melodic Free-Recall. The
Psychology of Music, vol. 24, No 2. Pages: 222-236.


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