Symphony of Mammon

Tidying up at the weekend, I came across the New Scientist Christmas Special (always a cracker) in which I re-read an article on the attentional blink. Although concerned with advertising, the findings of this research resonate with what we are all trying to do.

Jane Raymond – a consumer psychologist at the University of Wales in Bangor, conducted an experiment in which participants were asked to follow a stream of numbers and letters on a screen, looking out for either an X or a white letter. It transpired that when one appeared hot on the heels of another (within 0.5 seconds) it was missed. Half-a-second sounds like a short time. Not so in music, where we refer to it as 120 beats per minute (incidentally, the international speed of disco and of marching music). Often, in a march, there is more than one note per beat.

Stumbling across findings such as these reinforces belief in the benefits for concentration in playing music. Remember the people in the experiment were simply looking out for something – and not performing any additional, co-ordinated tasks. Pupils playing music at a reasonable tempo have to withstand tiny distractions which could lay waste to several notes in the piece – perhaps several dozen if a speedy recovery is not made.

Do these findings have any relevance to teaching in general? Upon the strength of them, I am inclined to spread the pearls of my wisdom more gradually through the period and to eschew the beguiling Catherine-wheel of pedagogical revelation which has hitherto been the trademark of lessons.