Monday, February 18, 2008

The Tabla Effect?

So, maybe you're asking yourself why I would put a picture of W. A. Mozart next to a picture of percussion master Trilok Gurtu. It's because I'm currently in a class called Learning And The Brain and I keep reading these studies that talk about melody and harmony helping to create neuronal connections in the brains of infants and toddlers, particularly with regards to the music of Mozart (the so called Mozart Effect). Now, please don't think for a moment that, as a drummer, I feel slighted by this research. My interest here is one of curiosity, not hurt feelings. I would like to point out, however, that music has three principle dimensions: melody, harmony, and rhythm. I'm wondering if anyone has bothered to study the effects of rhythm per se on the brain of a child. When you consider that percussion (aside from tympani) was not seriously studied in western music until the nineteenth century, and the first exclusively percussion compositions were not heard until the twentieth century, it would not surprise me to find that rhythm, percussion, and particularly percussion education were not considered by researchers seeking to find connections between music and early brain development. In the western music tradition, eastern percussion was largely ignored until the twentieth century. However, in the east, percussion has been an integral aspect of music for thousands of years. Compound meters, polyrhythms, and complex counting systems in eastern traditions are at least as old and advanced as equal temperment and triadic harmony are in the western tradition. Since we know that all early, and particularly repeated, stimuli affect the developing brain, there must be some measurable effect on the brains of individuals exposed to eastern rhythms since infancy (or earlier). Furthermore, the drumset, an instrument that is only about a hundred years old, has thrust percussion into the foreground of western culture. Surely this has had some some impact on the brains of those exposed to it since infancy or earlier. Perhaps there has been an unintentional bias in the research, an anglophilia that has tipped the research away from rhythm. After all, aside from tympani, the advanced percussion developments in music history have come from non European traditions. Hand drums have developed predominantly from African and middle eastern cultures, the steel drum from caribean culture, the drumset from African American culture, and yes, even tympani comes from the middle east (used for tiger hunting). Could there be a cultural bias in the research?

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