Cincy Science: With music festival season upon us, we wondered why little kids just gotta dance

CINCINNATI - Ever ask, "What is that?" Or, "Why is that?" In our "Cincy Science" feature, we talk with people who can answer those questions: The folks who do science in Cincinnati and the Tri-State.We've all seen it in stores, at home, at weddings and of course online.

The minute music cranks up, kids and toddlers alike start grooving to the beat. Even before many youngsters can walk or talk, they already know how to shake their diaper-clad booties.

WATCH: Remember the viral video of a baby dancing to "Single Ladies?"

So is our reaction to music innate? To find out why we're so moved or feel the need to move to music, we contacted Michael O'Hearn, clinical director, Center for Stress Related Disorders at the Lindner Center of Hope. O'Hearn has conducted extensive research into the connection between music and brain chemistry.

How do our brains process music?

The brain learns music differently than most other kinds of learning. Music is so significant because it affects the part of the brain that learns. If a kid learns math, only one part of the brain learns math. With music, it actually affects several different abilities at the same time, and the brain learns to integrate several learning experiences in one overall learning experience.

This is why music education and participation enhances visual-spatial, verbal, motor, and reading skills. Music exercises the part of the brain that learns, so learning in general is easier, and confidence is reinforced.

So what is it about music that helps us learn?

Music is intuitive, structured, and predictable. That’s why kids who learn times tables, or anything else via simple folk song melodies and hand clapping learn things quicker, more vividly, and forever because more aspects of their brain are involved in the learning – it prints better. Like for people who learned campfire songs in girl scouts and boy scouts and as adults remember all the words, melodies, and rhythms because more parts of the brain are involved in learning.

The reason that kids and adults respond to music differently than other kinds of sensory input to the brain is because music really registers in the limbic system; in the affect or the feeling part of us.

So that’s why we remember all the words to songs from when we were kids?

It’s not just the part of your memory that remembered the lyrics, your whole body was involved in learning it - so your whole body is involved in remembering it. That’s the power of music. It sort of bypasses the rational part of our brain, and goes right to the feelings part. So when our feelings are activated we get imagery, memories, body sensations and urges to move – it lights everything about us.

Kid’s brains aren’t fully developed until late adolescence or early adulthood, so the parts of the brain that regulate impulse, aren’t as strong as when we’re adults. So they hear music and they’re gone. They’re running around in circles, and everything’s great. They’re not even thinking about whether it’s right or wrong. They’re just sort of turned on and at one with the whole experience.”

So that’s why little kids dance around when they hear music. Do we learn to suppress those impulses as adults?

Well that sort of depends. It could be a really great situation or it can get us in trouble. If we’re breaking out at the family reunion, we could be legendary for generations as the guy that tore it up. But if that same person does the same thing at the work Christmas party after only being there for six months, it could turn out to be a different experience.

It gets into that combination of spontaneity and restraint. How do we judge that – so adults are more capable of exercising insight and judgment generally speaking about when and where to let loose because those parts of their brains are fully developed. I know a few adults, present company excluded of course, that need feedback from time to time - as kids do - on when to turn it on, and when to rest.

Does music provide enhancement at the toddler stage when they’re learning to motor and verbal skills?

“t does, and if you’re starting early, the part of your brain that learns is getting exercise by music and music curriculum, so learning in general is easier from there on out. And when it comes to self-expression in kids, again because kid’s brains aren’t developed until late adolescence or early adulthood, they can’t put things into words as well as adults.

So they literally can’t always express themselves verbally, although they’re always expected to and that can be frustrating. But they can with music. Think about really intense periods of grief, love, infatuation or blissful spiritual experiences – words just can’t capture it. But music can express it in a way that might transcend words. You might just look at somebody’s face and you know what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking – you know the depth, but words can’t capture it.

So music resonates deeply with our emotions?

Mainly, it’s targeting our affective or feelings part of us. And feelings are literally hardwired to our face, so you can look at somebody’s face and have a pretty good idea of what they’re feeling without having to say anything - that’s what music does. It brings that capacity of non-verbal communication – music brings that out and you don’t have to find words for it, you just have the deeper sense of emotional connection.

You can just look at each other’s faces to know what’s going on – you just know it. It’s a different, more intuitive kind of intelligence that music communicates and brings out. And it’s universal, that’s the other cool thing about it. You don’t have to speak the same language, you just know it. So that part really helps the kids really be able to express legitimately what sometimes they’re not able to connect words with and experiences.”

Are there songs that are more grove worthy than others?

I say all music is groove worthy, and we all have a groove; they’re all good. Syncopated rhythms require even more work from the part of your brain that learns music because it’s not on the predictable meter. Syncopated are like Latin or Jazz rhythms that have half steps in there. It’s just that half step off aren’t anticipated and those are really good for enhanced music training of the brain. If you’re working with music for little kids, keep it really simple, consistent and let them fall into the pattern. As they get a little bit older and their motor skills get more developed, then you can throw syncopated stuff in and it can be really fun.

Drumming to a different beat

In terms of education, O’Hearn explained he’s had great success using drumming therapy to treat impulse control disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in both children and adults. He said the therapy helps to regulate people’s impulses by reestablishing a consistent sense of rhythm. Drumming therapy is also known to be effective with for example, Parkinson’s disease.

How does this type of therapy help people with ADHD?

You can train the brain through music intervention. You start by teaching a basic in drum pattern. If you teach it to somebody with impulse control disorders, they try to master it, correct it, play it too fast and it falls apart – that’s essentially what they’re doing with the rest of their life too. After a while they learn to play at their own speed that they can master and then they ramp it up to a higher speed, and then a higher speed and master that while playing the pattern accurately; and all the while they’re literally training their brain at the same time.

Teaching drumming patterns and keeping tempo is a great way for kids to learn impulse control, it works like a dream and they love to do it. So there’s a lot of different ways that we can use music in mental health and education to try to help people.

As adults can we still use music to learn?

Music is different than learning a language. If you don’t start to learn a language early, it’s much harder to learn. Music doesn’t have that dynamic at all. People can learn and acquire music any time in the life span and achieve the same enhancement to cognition. So the implications are not just in primary education, it’s in all facets of learning across the lifespan. So for example, music is used on Alzheimer’s units. It diminishes agitated behavior with ambient soothing melodies. There are so many psychological applications for music I could go on and on. It’s no accident we hear music in groceries stores. People stay longer and they buy more.”

If music is so great for enhancing learning, why isn’t it used more often in schools?

You’re certainly singing my song. There’s just so much evidence in cognitive neuroscience and education and anywhere else you want to look that music education and participation enhances cognition in kids. I think the problem is that it’s one of those things that don’t fit neatly into a box. Stuff like music has more complexities and it’s difficult to quantify - it just doesn’t fit with traditional assessment design. The emphasis our education system has on achievement testing versus real learning is in my view, a real shame. Because it actually excludes some of the approaches and methods that are demonstrated to work best and achieve better scores. It just doesn’t make sense for an academic institution to exclude music, or any modality that enhances learning.

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