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Can Music Enhance Literacy?


Deborah Prescott
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Guest Andrew Moore

Hello, Debbie,

There may be a decent question to be made out of this, but it's rather meaningless as currently expressed.

Literacy and numeracy don't exist "out there" like the world's oil reserves. They are very imprecise names for some kinds of thinking that some people do, or maybe the capacity to think in certain ways, as it develops in individuals. And enhance is a very vague verb - expressing a loose idea of making better in some way.

I think your student may want to know if doing some kinds of thing with music and technology can help some learners understand better how to do some things in maths, and some things in speaking, writing and reading.

We are all familiar, I guess, with those experiments where students perform a series of tasks in maths, after listening to rock music, Mozart or nothing - which purport to show that Mozart helps and rock music hinders mathematical reasoning.

On the other hand, the student who claims that she does her English literature work better when she has music in the background is usually mistaken (I write that from very long experience and hundreds of examples) - what she really means is that she feels better about doing it.

The use of Bloom's taxonomy here is, I think, relevant. For rote learning of basic facts (dates of monarchs, the periodic table, the multiplication tables, a history book, even) music - as in singing or chanting - is a powerful aide mémoire for many people. But when it comes to the higher orders of thinking, the music is going to be a mild or greater distraction, assuming that one is listening to it. Chess players require silence, which also is promoted in unversity libraries.

Since your student cannot carry out a massive social experiment, it makes more sense for her to observe what people really do in various situations that illustrate her question. Elementary education, especially of the very young, makes a lot of use of music. (The music may also be mediated by technology, but that's less important; we use technology, because it makes good music affordable; if we could employ our own string quartets and so on, maybe we would.)

We don't play music to older learners who are taking tests in maths, writing, or reading with understanding.

Higher education and research do not, I think, use music to promote understanding in maths, language and literature. And adult occupations that use these abilities do so even less - it's not usual for bank clerks and accountants to have music as they work. (Not in the west, anyway.)

However, music embodies a lot of mathematical principles - which, if they become explicit to the musical practitioner, can be applied to understanding in maths or science.

In the case of writing, there is a rather different and indirect route - insofar as music can excite or inspire powerful feelings and noble aspirations, it can also promote the activity of writing, or give the writer a sense of something which he or she will use different abilities to convey to an audience.

I suspect that, for most learners, music is a much slighter influence than such things as diet, peer pressure or even a good teacher...

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Can music technology enhance literacy and numeracy?  She wants to link it to Bloom's Framework.  Does anyone have any ideas on websites or journal articles?

A couple of years ago, as a Performance Management target, I created a website entitled "Basic skills: literacy and numeracy in school subjects". Each page focused on, and provided relevant links for, literacy and numeracy development in one National Curriculum subject. The Music page is at:

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/NC/basic/Mu.html

Hope this helps.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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The accepted definition of 'music technology' is the use of sequencers, digital multi track recorders etc. to create music. It isn't particularly about the reaction to pre recorded music. So, your question I suspect relates to how cognitive mathematical principles are experienced through the creation of digital music. I'm not an expert, but I would think that the creation of Fibonnacci series related music, complex pattern based minimalist music and serialism are the kinds of things your student should start with. As for literacy, I've no idea. Personally I would favour a good book over a Tascam 16 track for literary enlightenment.

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Thanks for all your excellent suggestions. In South Australia I used music as a focus for literacy which was meant to make classes more appealing and motivating to young people.

One of the activities was following along with the words on sheet music. It forced the students to read quite quickly and, although the words were written from left to right, their eyes needed to jump down the page more than the usual amount of space. It was a new sensation that made them comment.

I did a lot of reading about accelerated learning that may be a memorising aid that Andrew mentioned and left and right brain activity, rhyming, etc. The evidence all seemed to be anecdotal but there was certainly that appeal for young people to bring in and share their music, write about it, research it and so forth. My presentation topic was Learning Along the Lines of Music at the ACAL conference in Melbourne. That attracted some interest from teachers, too! Debbie

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