It's Music to My Brain

Music brain picThere has been a great deal of justifiable buzz this week about the remarkable recovery of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords from a gunshot wound to the head last January.  She and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, have co-authored a new book detailing Giffords’ arduous journey back to health, and media coverage has included intriguing insights into brain function that Giffords’ steady progress reveals.  I’ve been performing in musical theater since I was a teenager, and so was particularly struck by the role that music is playing in Giffords’ recovery of language.

As it happens, media coverage of Giffords’ therapy and impressive progress coincides with my learning a role in an upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.  Many of us have experienced the assist we get in learning a passage of text or a speech when it’s set to music or to a musical rhythm or chant.  As I memorize Sondheim’s intricately crafted lyrics, I am constantly reminded of–and thankful for–the way he beautifully synchronizes a musical phrase with the words it accompanies, down to correctly accented syllables and unexpected but meaningful rhymes. 

It turns out that brain research documents that while language is typically processed on the left side of the brain (with comprehension and expression in separate but neurologically connected areas), music is processed on both sides of the brain.  So for someone like Giffords who has a left side brain injury affecting language, music makes it possible to get at language through the undamaged tissue on the other side and to rewire the injured brain itself.  And for someone like me, with the much less significant but still challenging task of trying to learn complicated lyrics, I get to come at the language from both sides of my brain at once.

The educational  implications are profound both for understanding and for making meaning through language.  As a learner, do you experience language in a multi-sensory way, and if so, how does that influence your learning?  As a teacher, do you make it possible for your students to come at language from varied points of entry–and if so, how do you do that, and what is the result?  Share your experiences here, and we can explore the implications for teaching and learning in a future post.

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