Another Brain-Boost through Music

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 39 (March 2000)

Does it strengthen your intellect to hear better the pitch and tone of musical notes? If so, what can you do about it? And what does it mean for our schools?

At Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1994, Gottfried Schlaug, Lutz Jancke, Yanxiong Huang and Helmuth Steinmetz established that the main part of our brain for understanding nuances of word-meaning, the left plenum temporales, in people with perfect musical pitch is double the physical size of the same organ in people without perfect musical pitch!

(Science, Feb. 3, 1995, vol. 267, 699-701.)

That is a huge difference. Even a 10% difference in size, in any component of your brain, would have been highly significant. But double?

There is no requirement that people with perfect musical pitch be great intellectuals. But it is clear that people with perfect pitch are intellectually more capable. They can much more readily grasp what is really being said!

Perfect pitch is a step beyond relative musical pitch, where we can recognize which note is being played, such as C sharp. Perfect pitch is where, without anything recent to compare and relate to, we can predict and sound, by voice or by tuning string, that C sharp or other note. Very few people have perfect pitch.

Perfect pitch can be learned, and perhaps not only by children.

This writer is looking for skilled computer programmers, good with games, graphics and music, to co-venture creating computer games and programs intended to instill perfect musical pitch even in adults. The free on-line program described in Winsights No. 14 (July 1997), originally designed as a fun way to teach 2-year-olds to sight-read and play music, as an incidental by-product results in children so taught developing perfect pitch. Various other programs and researches cite the learning and acquisition, at various ages including young adult, of this perfect pitch trait which usually is assumed to be genetic, inborn and not acquirable.

Some studies suggest that the skill is acquired easily before age 7 but rarely after the age of 11 years (D. Sargeant, Journal of Res. Music Education 17, 135, 1969), while at least one on-line program offers perfect pitch training to adults. Yet most professional musicians dismiss out of hand any possibility whatever that perfect pitch can be anything but an inborn, unacquirable trait. Certainly some cases of perfect musical pitch do seem almost inborn and unacquired, but others clearly are not.

What remains to be determined — besides development of programs much easier and more consistently productive for more people to learn perfect pitch — is whether learning perfect pitch as an adult will also result in expansion of the size and competence of that core of our intellect, the left plenum temporales.

Meanwhile, there are our own children, and the clock ticks on. Schlaug’s findings are but one more chapter in a long series of findings and observations showing an integral link between experience in the arts and intellectual capabilities. So far as the perfect-pitch connection is concerned, on behalf of your own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and your own younger siblings of age 3 years and younger, the apparent means to teach that (and the sight reading) are free for your use in the Winsights archives, Part 14.

For older children

Certainly it has been known for a long time that there was some sort of link between “left brain” intellect and “right brain” arts. All the physicists and mathematicians who are also musicians will tell you that. Children of otherwise similar backgrounds, who are involved in the arts, enjoy a 10- to 20-points I.Q. advantage over their non-musical, non-artistic fellows.

As our understanding of the human brain improves, we’ve begun to appreciate that most key intellectual functions (left brain) require major involvements from the “artsy” right side, and truly effective functioning in the arts requires strong left-brain involvement. Schlaug’s findings were only the latest in a long series of findings pointing in this direction.

And in strictly practical terms, there are all those studies finding that having the arts in schools more than pays for itself even in the strictly limited regard that once kids can express themselves in the arts, vandalism and its costs virtually disappear.

Yet in the 1980s, in the name of economy, the arts all but disappeared from public education and still have not fully recovered. This is one more of many reasons why so many now find it so hopeless a struggle to learn even a portion of what, in Macaulay’s time, “every schoolboy knows.”

You may well wish to privately enrich the arts side of your children’s lives in any case. If your school district does not provide a meaningful art and music education, chances are it also doesn’t understand other crucial matters enough to give your child a good education generally. You would do well in that instance to look for alternatives.

Other references

See Perfect Pitch, David Burges’ most interesting site for a method that reportedly does teach perfect pitch to adults. Already possessed of such pitch, Win is unable to evaluate the method directly and would like to hear from others who can.