Dave Munger knows A LOT about music. At least how it makes you feel, what it does for the atmosphere, and how you can learn a lot from it.
And he's not even a musician.
But maybe he should be? After all, he does know that music has been known to help children score higher on IQ tests, improve your memory, and help you learn languages.
And he writes all about it on his blog, which he created with wife Greta.
Their blog, Cognitive Daily, reports on fascinating developments in the world of cognition ("the process of thought") from the most respected scientists and psychologists.
And not surprisingly at all, music has a lot to do with it. Let's hear what David has to say about how music can really make us tick.
Tell me about your background in cognitive psychology
I actually don't have much of a background in cognitive psychology at all. I took a developmental psych class in graduate school and very much enjoyed it, but the real psychologist behind Cognitive Daily is my wife, Greta Munger. She's professor of psychology at Davidson College and she serves as the editor and scientific consultant for Cognitive Daily. I do all the writing, she does all the science. It works well. Of course, after four years of writing about psychology every day, I've picked up a bit here and there!
Does music play a role in cognitive development? How?
Absolutely. Some researchers believe that language may have originated with mothers singing their babies to sleep, then evolved into a separate form of communication. Several studies have found that studying music as a child can improve scores on IQ tests. However, studies suggesting that just listening to the music of Mozart can make you smarter turned out to be overhyped. Background music can put you in a better mood or arouse you, both of which might improve a test score, but there are plenty of other ways to improve mood and attitude besides just music.
Why did you and your wife decide to start a blog together on cognitive psychology?
As I mentioned, Greta is a psychology professor and I'm a writer, so it just made sense to combine our talents. For a while we tossed around the idea of turning our blog into a book, but in the end we decided that the blog is in many ways better than a book. You can't play a musical clip or a movie in a book, you can't poll your readers in a book, and you can't hear what your readers think about your writing instantaneously in a book. Instead, I've focused on creating more online tools for people to learn about science, and I now spend about half of my time working on ResearchBlogging.org, a site which collects thousands of blog posts from hundreds of bloggers about all types of research. Your readers should try visiting the site and searching for "music": dozens of cool articles pop up!
I just moved to Israel and I love Israeli music. It’s helping me pick up lots of Hebrew words. Is it really true that music helps us learn languages?
Music and language are definitely related, but I'm not sure music has ever been shown to improve language learning. Learning music seems to have more to do with math and spatial ability. Of course, anything that exposes you to language is going to help you learn it: singing or listening to songs, watching TV, surfing the web, etc. But I'm not aware of any studies showing that music is an especially good way to learn language.
You wrote a post about musicians having better memory…what do you have to say about that?
It's true. As you might expect, many musicians have better memory for songs than non-musicians, but this ability extends beyond just music to words and pictures as well. Musicians have learned strategies for remembering music, and they can apply similar strategies, such as chunking or grouping similar things together. Interestingly, musicians are no better than non-musicians at memorizing unrelated sequences of notes; they're just better at recognizing patterns, both in music and in non-musical areas. (http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2009/05/musicians_have_better_memory_-.php)
How much does music contribute to an environment—like to a dentist’s office?
There's no doubt that music has a huge effect on our perceptions of environment. The wrong sort of background music in a video game has been shown to harm performance. Scary movie background music can make people remember objects (like a knife or gun) that weren't there, and ascribe sinister intentions to benign characters. Music can make you relaxed or energized. My dentist used to play peppy 70s rock to soothe his patients with familiar music. I thought that was pretty cool in the early 80s, but now my new dentist still plays the same old music!
You wrote a post that says there’s research that suggests we have a “number line” in our heads like a musical scale. Explain what you mean.
It's more the other way around. Researchers had found that most people seem to have a visual representation of a number line in their head, so they react faster to high numbers with their right hand, and low numbers with their left hand (since higher numbers are further to the right on a number line). The post discusses research suggesting that musicians have a similar effect for musical notes: they react faster to higher notes with their right hand compared to the left hand -- so for them a musical scale is sort of like a number line. However, most of the effect can be traced to piano playing -- the effect is much more pronounced in pianists, who play higher notes with the right hand. It'd be interesting to test guitarists, since the right hand isn't used to control pitch, they may have a completely different effect.
Do you play any instruments or have any musical influences?
I don't play any instruments myself but I'm an avid follower of the three musicians in my immediate family: Greta, who I mentioned plays oboe; my daughter Nora, who plays bassoon, and my son Jim, who plays bass guitar. I like a lot of different music, especially the jazz greats like Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Django Reinhardt, but I also have a special place in my heart for the music of my high school years, from bands like New Order, Depeche Mode, and Talking Heads.
How did you son start playing bass guitar? Why bass and not mainstream electric, and what have you learned about guitars from watching or hearing him?
We got him a regular electric, and it didn't really catch on, but then he bought himself a bass, and it did catch on -- it's hard to say why, but the instrument seems to fit him perfectly. Now he plays with a Southern rock band called Southern Fire. They have gigs almost every week, and I've really enjoyed it when I've seen him play. I think what I've learned from watching him is how important the bass really is in a band; it's an instrument I hadn't really noticed before, but now I can't help listening to the bass line in nearly any song I hear.
In what way could guitar specifically influence cognitive psychology?
I've never read a study specifically about the guitar, but I think one of the things that makes the guitar such a special instrument is that it can be both a melody and a rhythm instrument, and it also allows the player to move around and sing while playing. So maybe guitar could help you get better at "multi tasking" (but I should add that there's not really such a thing as multi-tasking -- what multi-taskers actually do is get very good at switching between tasks).