Music and STEAM is not magic… it’s part of real life

Music and soap bubbles

Creating music yesterday and today – different school experiences

“If I had not been a physicist, I would probably have been a musician”.

So said the father of relativity A. Einstein, underlining the indissolubility between scientific subjects and music. Historically, the perceived distance between science and music is to be considered a relatively recent product, a consequence of the artificial separation between the humanistic-artistic and the scientific-quantitative spheres. In reality, as Pythagoras stated two millennia ago, music and mathematics are intimately connected. Other scientists have deepened this link, just think of the philosopher and mathematician Leibniz, who in his letter to the German mathematician Ch. Goldbach of 17 April 1712, wrote: “Musica est exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi” (Music is an occult exercise in arithmetic, in which the mind does not realise that it is calculating).

However, music has deep connections with all STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) disciplines, which makes its use in education particularly fruitful as it allows us to amplify attention, be engaging, promote the development of problem solving, autonomy and above all learning by doing.  

Looking closer, it would even be possible to say that music is closely connected with life on all levels. According to recent studies, listening to certain types of music can improve mood, reduce stress, alleviate pain (e.g. for surgery patients), stabilise breathing rate, help to consume less food, help treat insomnia, increase exercise endurance and improve motivation and running performance. Music, therefore, cannot be considered just an art form for entertainment.

Its being so intimately connected with life makes it perfect for educational use, as has been amply demonstrated in the field of language teaching. As early as the 1970s, it was argued that music could increase students’ interest in language learning, and the interconnections between linguistic and musical intelligence highlighted by Gardner (2013) have definitely paved the way for the use of music in language courses.

After all, it is intuitive that music and songs, having a universal appeal and a ubiquitous presence in most people’s daily lives, have all the prerequisites to become an effective teaching resource. But it is not just a question of fascination, music has the ability to involve every part of nature and human life.

The action of music is in fact known to be an action that can be directed both from the outside to the inside of the person (external instruments and vibrations that involve the person’s psyche), and from the inside to the outside (a person’s physiology influences the way they produce sounds). What is less well known, however, is that music is also at the basis of human functioning: proteins are able to vibrate and produce sounds like bells. All these ideas can be used as starting points for creative and innovative workshops.

Creating music yesterday and today – the digital learning experience

For centuries, the sound produced by the contact between two objects has been used to originate and study music: the finger touching a glass, the hands tapping on a surface, a hammer on a bell, the fingers on the strings of a zither, the breath in a flute or the percussion on a drum, etc..

Today it is possible to transform the sound of a guitar and a piano, and modify it to our liking by creating unique compositions with electronic module platforms, such as Littlebits.

Other platforms and devices, such as Makey Makey and Scratch, allow objects such as pencils, apples, bananas, candy, aluminium and graphite to be played.

Didactically, one can go even further: the technology allows one to create a timeline in which musician-scientists can be inserted and brought to life with their sounds to the sound of STEM. ( timeline Knight Js). The students’ most popular experiences, however, will certainly be the workshops.

A particularly significant workshop-experience is the “MUSIC LAB” Project – Second Edition Middle School Istituto Comprensivo n°1 – Arzachena, realised thanks to funding from the Fondazione di Sardegna and the collaboration of Ing. A. Burrai -Fab Lab of Olbia.

The project, inspired by the famous 3Dvarius, consists in creating an innovative object: a working violin printed in 3D with special wooden parts.

Creating a truly functional musical instrument using new technologies and instruments present in the institute that have never (or hardly) been used was a highly motivating challenge for the students.

The choice of the instrument to be created was made by the students.

The work, which you can see in the pictures below, was divided into several stages (carried out in teams by the students): the creation of the body of the violin with a laser cutting machine, the subsequent assembly of the parts, the sound test with electronics connected to the PC, the recording of the sound track.

The amazement is undeniable, it works and the sound is excellent… The next step is to build a guitar.

Students built the digital violin

Workshop

Music and soap bubbles

Everyone knows about soap bubbles and the fascination they exert on young and old, but rarely do we reflect on the fact that they are small physical and chemical laboratories and also companions of an orchestra where sound and light intertwine.

How many of us have admired the evanescent rainbow that is reflected on the surfaces of ‘magic’ bubbles for the blink of an eye. These are air bubbles surrounded by a very thin film of soapy water which, thanks to surface tension, behaves like a thin iridescent balloon of multicoloured rubber.

Special orchestra – laboratory

For the workshop it can be an easily darkened room, and easily available materials such as a laser pen, straws and soapy water (concentrated dish soap – adding sugar, honey or glycerine will produce stronger bubbles) and a musical instrument, preferably a stringed one, are needed.

Teamwork is necessary for the success of the project: one pupil makes soap bubbles, another lights them with a laser and a third plays the violin.

Astonishment is guaranteed: the colours of the bubbles move to the sound of music. E, G, B, C correspond to a moving away and coming closer of colours that looks like a fascinating dance.

After several repetitions, the pupils can also read the musical notes from the position of the colours.

This experiment can be used for an inquiry-type teaching activity at level 3 or 4: starting from the visual experience, discover why it is possible to read the music in this ephemeral score.

Music therapy and education accompanied by music

Science tells us that even in the prenatal period, babies in utero react to sounds when exposed to music and various sounds in general. It seems that music promotes prenatal learning and the development of the unborn child’s brain by encouraging the formation of neuronal connections that are essential for stimulating curiosity and learning. Music promotes relaxation, the production of endorphins, which increase the feeling of well-being in the body. By relaxing, endorphins help overcome physical and psychological difficulties. A state of well-being certainly has a biological influence on the unborn child, so much so that it has been proposed that music be used in neonatal intensive care units (albeit sometimes with contradictory results). The reasons are not known but the results say that babies in the womb have an increase in brain activity when exposed to music.

More controversial is the ‘Mozart effect’, a scientific theory developed in 1993 by physicists Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher, who claimed that listening to Mozart’s Sonata in D major for two pianos (KV 448) caused a temporary increase in cognitive abilities in a group of volunteers. This study, based on a small sample of 36 volunteers, has not been successfully replicated enough times to be able to affirm its validity, but it was extraordinarily successful in the 1990s, which led to the production and marketing of many products for children (from CDs to music boxes, musical puppets, etc.) that claimed to improve children’s intelligence.

The brain loves music, because thanks to mirror neurons, it engages us with the external environment and music is able to influence our psycho-physical and relational conditions. Paraphrasing the phrase “You are what you eat” with “You are what you listen to”, we understand that music definitely acts on the brain and from there on all the chemical reactions of our body, we do not yet know with what mechanism but we see the results as it does not heal but helps to heal the ills of the physical and soul of each individual.

This beneficial action, although not yet fully understood, can be profitably exploited in education to find creative ways of attracting the interest of students. In particular, this can be profitably exploited in English language learning, not least because BritPop music has been popular with young people for years. Although, this useful resource is relatively unstudied by scholars in the field in teaching practice, teachers often find themselves using music and songs in language teaching motivated by empirical reasons.

In fact, it is relatively easy to observe that students are more motivated to participate in lessons that focus on songs (even if the teacher’s objective is actually to present or consolidate lexical, grammatical and even cultural knowledge). It is also easier for students to become aware of correct pronunciation by listening to and producing the musical text. In addition, songs are often written in colloquial language and with numerous repetitions, facilitating language learning.

As Arévalo (2010: 130-131) notes, songs make language learning more interesting and effective by engaging learners in interactive and reflective processes while they discover the content and meaning of the songs for themselves.

Music and songs can therefore be used to enhance the learning of almost any aspect of the target language, to develop cultural awareness and to foster students’ creativity.

Obviously, for successful implementation it is vital that teachers select music and songs that are intrinsically linked to the lesson objectives and then carefully design (or adapt) the classroom activities that will lead to the achievement of the objectives.

Ancestral music and man – The Tenores

Sardinia – Anatomy and Singing

We have seen how the action of music is central to every aspect of human life and therefore to education: it is indeed interesting to study how its action is exerted from the outside to the inside of the person (how instruments work and how external vibrations involve the person’s psyche), it is also interesting to try to understand how even particles of our body can “play” the “music of “life” and a further incentive to study may come from wanting to understand how the action of music can be exerted from the inside to the outside of the human body: how does a person’s physiology influence the production of sound?

Tenores

A very useful cue in this sense comes from Sardinia, with Tenor Singing: unique of its kind, a UNESCO heritage site, it was born from a harmonious blend of anatomy, sound and music. The term ‘Tenor’ refers to the music, the song itself and the choir of four singers who perform it. These perform distinct and very specialised roles. The sound is guttural and depends on the mouth structure of each individual, so the result is a unique and unrepeatable orchestra. It involves the singing of a soloist accompanied ‘ad accordi’ (‘corfos’) by a three-part vocal choir (itself properly called ‘su tenore’). The soloist, called ‘sa boghe’, sings a poetic text in Sardinian while the other three singers, ‘su bassu, sa contra, sa mesu boghe’, accompany the singing with ‘nonsense’ syllables, emitting (the first two or only one of the two) guttural sounds with a peculiar vocal colour.

It is overwhelming, it embraces you, it goes through your mind and makes your body vibrate … this is what happens to the listener.

Conclusions

Whatever the instrument, whatever the inspiration, music accompanies us from gestation to death, it is part of life. In many cultures, but also in our own, Sardinian, death is accompanied by songs, dirges and sounds that have as instruments our mouth, our vocal cords and our mimicry. It overwhelms you, opens you up to the mystery of birth and the memory of death as the end of a natural cycle.  They are waves, which run over us, through the body, through our cells as if we were glasses more or less full of liquids.

All this is Science … STEAM

Every plucked stringed instrument opens a curtain that can give us charge, courage, keep us company, heal the wounds of the soul and relax us.

It is no coincidence that, in order to research our past, telescopes pick up sounds that are nothing more than Music of the Universe, without belonging or colour.

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About costantina

Science Chemistry Biology teacher in Scientific High School. Ambassodor Scientix, Go Lab trainer, ILS and ASOC tutor. Monitoring expert. Olimp STEM Sard.Nord. ANISN Teacher, the science events Responsable. Liceo Scientifico PLS Università di Sassari. Tutor Erasmus Plus. Clil Teacher.

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