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Modern Family: The Magic of Music

Not all babies need a quiet hush to fall asleep. I definitely didn’t. Music boomed across our home grandly from a vintage Grundig player in the living room. The volume at which my father enjoyed listening to his beloved composers meant their strains wafted to every corner of the house. Bach to Brahms, Sibelius to Stravinsky, Mozart to Mendelssohn: My pram was parked beneath stacks of LPs, and I was sent off to slumber by their melodies. Dad recommended this loud bedtime routine widely to family and friends. A mere minute of “The Merry Widow Waltz” never failed to make his little girl’s eyes scrunch shut, he declared.

His favourites were Beethoven and wizard-of-the-violin Jascha Heifetz. An unabashed worshipper of these virtuosos, he fervently hoped his children would share his heroes’ date of birth. (My brother came in close, a day after Heifetz. I was doomed to more distance, rushing out to greet the world two weeks before Beethoven’s birthday.)

Why harp on those half-a-century-ago happenings? Because they have shaped my present and will as indelibly stamp my children’s future. The calm positivity of music touches and soothes children and adults alike. My baby boy kicked with delight at the music my husband and I exposed him to, virtually from the moment we knew he was expected. He grew up to chase away black hours of angst by crafting lyric ballads of his own. His younger sister also discovered the power of music as salve and solace. When the menopausal mum in me clashes with the hormonal daughter in her, she storms off to cool her hot head by listening to Alt-J and Coldplay. Apologizing and forgiving is easier right after, for us both.

A confirmed therapeutic tool, music can impact kids of all kinds, including those with special needs and developmental disorders. This was among the first observations by young readers in my middle school book club, who just read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. They were quick to identify with the way the autistic teen protagonist bangs away on his guitar when the bewildering world upsets him. They shared how strumming an instrument, singing, or even plain listening to music comforts them when they are confused or angry.

These children intuitively sense what psychologist Howard Gardner identifies in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences: that music is an inextricable part of how we make sense of our world. Gardner writes: “I want children to understand the world, but not just because it is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to be positioned to make the world a better place. We need to understand it if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions.”

Key to that understanding is to know who we are and what we can do. Gardner explores human cognition in its wholesome fullness, identifying eight basic kinds of intellect, among which is one specifically related to music:

  • Verbal/Linguistic intelligence: propels reading, writing and speaking
  • Mathematical/Logical: nurtures the left brain, enhances math skills
  • Visual/Spatial: perceives space in three dimensions and directions
  • Body/Kinesthetic: releases the energies of physical movement, dance and play
  • Intra-personal: offers self-esteem and self (spiritual) awareness
  • Inter-personal: builds communication and leadership qualities
  • Musical/Rhythmical: fosters a love for song and rhythm patterns
  • Naturalistic: recognises the readiness to appreciate nature

Children absorb and act on these abilities to varying degrees of success, and so-called failure or underperformance in one area doesn’t necessarily mean a diminution in intelligence. Might some parents, worrying about progress against typical milestones – normally tied to the first three intellects on Gardner’s list – be less attentive to musical appreciation and naturalistic intelligence? This pair of faculties raises extraordinary sensitivity and often gets shorter shrift than the rest of Gardner’s octet.

Music beautifully marries many disciplines. In a lecture I attended last week, nuclear physicist and musician R. Vijayaraghavan, from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, explained the connections. With audio-visual examples of resonance, harmonics, tonality, sonic waves, pitch bending and pacing, he clearly demonstrated the synthesis between music and maths and physics. A pity, then, that music is short-sightedly dropped from several senior school curricula, when it offers so much scope for applying and reinforcing mathematical and scientific concepts.

To be seized by an abiding interest in any form of music is to be blessed for life. So here’s a happy coda to the start of this story. After long years spent as a music buff, my father wrote a well-reviewed book on Western classical composers upon turning 90 last year. Now, determined to prove he’s “no one-book wonder,” he is immersed in another labour of love: a book for children that will demystify the orchestra.

Mine was the privilege of witnessing first-hand such an enduring love, which has swelled across three generations so far. I celebrate it, cherish it, and watch it inspire my kids likewise … to rock on!

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