By Annette Kingsbury
In Disney's movie "Fantasia," inanimate objects seem to come to life to the strains of some powerful classical music.
Though it's only a cartoon, some researchers are now asking the question: Does music have some "magic" powers to turn on the brain? Can people wondering how to deal with depression use music as a tool? And if so, what kind of music?
As far back as the 19th century, music was believed to have an impact on the size of the brain. Childhood brain development research has been going on for decades, but in recent years, medical technology such as MRI actually allows a peek at the living brain at work. This allows researchers to observe the effects of music on brain activity.
It's been dubbed "the Mozart effect" and though not yet fully understood, it has prompted the packaging of classical music for children in the form of CDs and videos.
Former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller was so excited about the possibilities he devised "Beethoven for Babies," asking lawmakers for money to send every newborn in Georgia home from the hospital with a classical CD. In the end, the Sony Corporation picked up the tab for a year.
Researchers don't know yet whether simply listening to classical music from an early age affects the brain. However, studies seem to suggest that studying music may have an impact, though researchers aren't sure if that's cause or effect.
In other words, according to Norman Weinberger, a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California-Irvine, "The ability to learn to play an instrument at an early age might occur only in children whose brains previously were overdeveloped in certain areas."
Another UCI professor, physicist Gordon Shaw, Ph.D., is a leader in the Mozart movement. He's used only Mozart in his research (fitting, perhaps, since the composer was a child prodigy).
He has published studies showing that children who listened to Mozart and studied piano were far ahead of their peers in math. Perhaps that's as good a reason as any for keeping elementary music programs.
Carolyn Gilbreath, a consultant with the Oakland Intermediate School District in Michigan, has studied the concept of "superlearning." She said one theory is that the right music "sinks the body into alpha (brain) waves."
It's the same concept behind meditation and some stress management workshops, she said. Some believe the right tempo and type of music can also heal -- everything from depression to multiple sclerosis. Getting in touch with the alpha waves "puts the two hemispheres of the brain into sync," Gilbreath said.
"It's something about the tempo; there's nothing magical," she said. Admitting that she's not musically trained herself, she added with a straight face, "I did read an article that says you cannot use country/western music."
While experts warn that it's too early to get excited about magically turning children into superlearners with a wave of the baton, here's a sampling of what some researchers have observed in their experiments:
For at least a century, educators have believed that music instruction helps students in many ways, like speech and language development, motor and rhythmic coordination, and social skills.
But experiments like these point to the possibility that music offers benefits well beyond that. In fact, since music is common to all cultures, some are wondering: Is the brain hot-wired for music?
Gilbreath says she's frustrated all this information hasn't really filtered down into classroom practices. She is the mother of two high-school students.
"I really thought they were going to have a whole different educational experience than I did," she said. "But it's pretty much the same, (despite) all we know."
It's rare that she will run into a teacher who is actually using music to enhance learning. One way to do so is to play music as an "active" part of a lesson while teaching the subject material. Then, when an entire lesson is completed, music is played by itself for the students, a more "passive" use.
Interestingly, Gilbreath said teachers in the field of special education seem more open to experimenting with music.
Taking no chances, one Waterford, Michigan school played Mozart for students before they took the standardized tests. Oh, and they used peppermint, too (its scent is also thought to be relaxing).
"I think it's wonderful," said Shelly Rose, whose child attends the school. "If it gets people to listen to classical music, I'm all for it."
Who wants to waste precious years of a child's life waiting for researchers to make up their minds? Aside from having to endure the squeaks and squawks of a new musician, there's practically no downside to getting a child into music education at an early age.
Will it guarantee future success in school? Not necessarily, but it can't hurt and at the very least there's the appreciation of the art form itself, something that can be enjoyed for a lifetime.
"The more you use the brain, the better you get," Gilbreath said. "It's a muscle; use it or lose it."
Gilbreath noted that research has gone on for decades on Einstein's brain. Studies have shown the brain of the great scientist (who, by the way, played the violin) is unique in its structure.
There's no way to know whether he was born that way or if it developed after birth. But in music, as in the mystery of Einstein, even if all the answers aren't yet known, some inferences can be drawn, Gilbreath believes.
"Music probably helps you make some (brain) connections you wouldn't have made," she said. "A lot of this is still hypothetical. We know so little about the brain; we have some behaviors we can't explain ..."
"There's nothing like music. It can't hurt people. It's very beneficial. I don't think it has any downside at all."
Annette Kingsbury is a freelance writer.