Teaching, First Nations Culture, Singing & Neuroscience

Apr 14 / Jo Tuscano
In primary school, I learned to sing Sur La Pont D’Avignon in French and later, when I was fourteen and living in Bangladesh, we sang the Bengali national anthem, Amar Shonar Bangla, in Bengali. If you asked me to sing them now, I could do it, word perfect. Decades have gone by, yet the words and melodies are stuck in my brain as though I learned them last week. I can’t remember what I bought at the shops yesterday, but I could do a hot version of On the Bridge at D’Avignon right at this moment if asked. Why does this happen?
The elements that make up songs – rhythm, rhyme, tone, repetition, and alliteration give us cues to unlock information and embed it in our memories. Music and singing evoke emotional responses in us, and they trigger memories and sensations, which allow us to make connections. These connections are often linked to a certain time or an experience. They may not always be pleasurable. I know people who can’t listen to a particular song because that song was popular when they were dumped by their boyfriend/got fired/almost drowned…insert terrible experience here. On the other hand, where there has been a positive experience, or an experience that may not be pleasurable but is significant, we also tend to remember the song playing at the time if there was one. Sometimes, the music and lyrics are dreadful, banal, silly or irritating, but if they are associated with a particular experience, we have easy access to the memories and the music that was linked to that time. 
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The relationship between memory and music is a very powerful one, and this is why music and singing are such important teaching tools. It is also why I have written songs to accompany each activity in V10_Buthi Storybook. Singing has always been an important teaching tool from day one of human history. Nobody can put a date on how old the production of song is to human development. Our voice is the original musical instrument, and we probably sang before we spoke. Anthropologists believe that perhaps we copied the sounds heard in the natural world – the birds, animals, the rush of water, and the sounds of pain and enjoyment. All human cultures sing. They sing for different reasons - for pleasure, to mark rituals, to invoke God or spirits, and pay homage to an event in history. The oral tradition saw stories passed down the generations by song and chanting. This was before the written form. The oral tradition relied on memory, so it was necessary to arrange information in a way that was easy to recall. Nothing has changed in this respect to this day. 
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Dorsey Smith and Jo Tuscano rehearsing song for V10_Buthi Storybook
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The areas of the brain associated with memory are the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. The hippocampus is vital for learning and memory. Humans have the ability to learn new tunes, possibly because our temporal lobes, where the hippocampus lies, control auditory processing. Birds and other animals can sing; however, they stick to one tune. Humans can learn many songs at once. Amongst other roles, the frontal cortex deals with spontaneity, language, emotion, and social behaviour, all higher cognitive functions. When we sing, feel-good chemicals are released into our bloodstreams. The chemicals released when we sing are oxytocin and dopamine. They improve the neuroplasticity of our brains. When we sing, the brain fires up its neurotransmitters. This improves our cognitive function. When we sing together, we bond with each other, creating an atmosphere of belonging and community. Many of the songs in Buthi Storybook have the emphasis on ‘we’ and ‘our’ - we as a group, as a classroom, and as a community. 
Singing has many benefits for children: physical, psychological, social, musical and educational. Singing is a whole brain activity. Singing together builds group cohesion and collaboration and it's fun.
As a teacher and a musician, I’ve always used music in my English teaching. As a published novelist, I’ve referenced songs in my novels. They reflect the zeitgeist of the era, evoking the tone the feel of everything from fashion and food to politics. Music is a big part of The Buthi Storybook. Working with Dorsey Smith on Buthi Storybook and writing and performing the songs for the program has been amazing and such fun, but more importantly, when the children sing in Dhunghutti and English, they are making new connections in their brains, expanding their vocabulary, developing flexibility with their tongues, and learning about First Nations Culture and Practice. It’s a fun way to impart skills and knowledge. One of the lines of our songs is ‘We learn new things and play with our mob, learning with Buthi, that’s our job! Our job at imagineer.me is creating content for teachers that uses the latest research underpinned by neuroscience and the 8 Ways of Learning pedagogy to give all children the opportunity to learn while having fun. So, let’s sing!
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