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Wired for sound

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Infants will take music lessons in a Mac project funded by Grammy folks to see if it helps brain and social development.

July 14, 2008

Mary K. Nolan

The Hamilton Spectator

(Jul 14, 2008)

Frank Sinatra got one.

So did Bruce Springsteen, Count Basie and k.d. lang.

Now Laurel Trainor has a Grammy award, too.

Hers is not the traditional, gold-plated, miniature gramophone, but a cheque in the amount of $39,800. And she didn't have to produce a movie soundtrack or sing an outstanding song to get it.

The director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind is one of only 22 successful applicants for a 2008 grant from the Grammy Foundation in California, which received 102 applications for a share of $600,000 in disbursements.

She and her research team will use the money to finance a study of how -- or whether -- babies benefit from early music education. The project is unique because it involves a younger than usual study group -- six-month-old infants -- and their parents, and will not be conducted in the precisely controlled environment of Mac's auditory labs.

Starting in the fall, Trainor's team, which includes research partner and PhD student David Gerry, will recruit 80 babies from the Wesley Ontario Early Years Centre and Today's Family Ontario Early Years Centre, which serve the city's west and Mountain ridings respectively.

After a round of pre-testing, they will start taking weekly classes at their centres with a Suzuki early childhood education teacher. When the babies reach the ripe old age of one, the lessons will end and the "students" will be retested.

Trainor hopes to establish that exposing them to Suzuki ECE music lessons can improve their perceptual, cognitive and social development.

There are no expectations of baby virtuosos tinkling the ivories or tootling the flute.

The Suzuki ECE program, developed 15 years ago by Canadian Dorothy Jones, uses percussion instruments, nursery rhymes, finger play, action songs and storytelling to help little people develop such skills as rhythm, pitch, memory, observation, listening, fine and gross motor co-ordination.

"The younger children don't play violins," smiles Trainor, a professor in Mac's department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour. "There's a lot of singing, clapping, xylophones."

The project began when Today's Family staff contacted the Music and the Mind institute for advice on setting up music programs for their young charges.

Trainor and Gerry saw a perfect opportunity for testing the theory that music training at a very early age could have long-lasting benefits. Although that hypothesis in itself is not news, the researchers wanted to reach a population that wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to music lessons, especially expensive classes such as Suzuki.

After six months, Trainor's team will use a variety of methods to measure the difference between infants who were in the study and those who weren't.

While all of the teaching and some of the testing will be conducted in the class environment, babies will have to attend Trainor's lab at Mac for an electroencephalogram (EEG). They'll be outfitted with a fetching net bonnet consisting of 128 electrodes, which are attached to the scalp to record brain activity.

The results will show whether the babies have developed an aesthetic response that allows them to distinguish pleasant musical sounds from discordant ones, and melodies played with no expression from those with variations in pitch, timing and expression.

Trainor plans to gauge the infants' cognitive development by looking at their early language skills.

"I suspect that language development will be accelerated in kids with music training," says Trainor, who plays principal flute with Symphony Hamilton. "Studies show that music training increases cognitive development in all other areas and also trains the attentional system."

She'll also look at the social interactions of the babies and how they are taking cues from each other, observing the structure of activities, and attempting to mimic behaviour.

Laurel Brydges, of Today's Child, says the centre is "totally excited" about the partnership with Trainor's researchers. The Ontario Early Years Centres are all about providing children with the best opportunities for life, she says, and the Suzuki training will only enhance their healthy development.

"The more assets a child has, the more they stay out of trouble," says Brydges. "It's going to be interesting."

Brydges says she expects the project will show there is a big difference when an infant receives live music training from a professional instructor as opposed to just listening to a tape.

If the findings support Trainor's hypothesis, she will try to get ongoing government and private support to keep the project going, ideally expanding it to older children and poor neighbourhoods.

The Grammy Foundation, part of whose mandate is music education, "is a perfect fit," says Trainor, but $40,000 is the maximum grant it bestows.

"We sure could have used more, but we'll manage. If we find (the results) quite beneficial, we will look for donors to keep it going independent of research."

cool ...

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