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The Cutting Edge

The Sounds of Learning

UCLA Medicine Fall 09-Sound of LearningIN JUNE 2009, newspapers reported that archaeologists in Germany had discovered a 35,000-year-old flute made of bird bone. It represented, one paper said, “the earliest known flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture.” And we have been tapping our toes, humming along, singing and dancing ever since.

The power of music affects all of us and has long appealed to our emotions. It is for this reason that UCLA researchers are using music to help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), for whom understanding emotions is a very difficult task. This inability robs them of the chance to communicate effectively and make friends and can often lead to social isolation and loneliness.

A grant from the NAMM Foundation, the trade association of the international music-products association, is making a difference. Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist at the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity and member of the of the Help Group-UCLA Autism Research Alliance, and colleagues have applied the grant to develop a music-education program designed to help children with ASD better understand emotions and learn to recognize emotions in others.

The children are using a method of music education known as the Orff-Schulwerk approach. Developed by 20th-century German composer Carl Orff (“schulwerk” is German for schooling), it is a unique approach to music learning that is supported by movement and based on things that kids intuitively like to do, such as sing, chant rhymes, clap, dance and keep a beat or play a rhythm on anything near at hand. Orff called this music and movement activity “elemental” – basic, unsophisticated and concerned with the fundamental building blocks of music.

“Music is a birthright of all children. To be able to listen and appreciate, sing or participate in music-making is as essential to development as mathematical or linguistic learning,” Dr. Molnar-Szakacs says. “The purpose of this work is to provide a means for awakening the potential in every child for being ‘musical’ — that is, to be able to understand and use music and movement as forms of expression and, through that, to develop a recognition and understanding of emotions.”

And participating in musical activities also has the potential to act as a scaff old on which to build other learning and development, from timing and language to social skills, he says.


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