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Music, the Mind and Public Speaking

Back in April, I came across the heartbreaking front page New York Times story of Newark, Ohio high school student Tiffany Clay. Tiffany is the recently graduated and highly gifted first violinist for the Newark High School Sinfonia. She worked hard in school, consistently received top grades and since the age of 16, after a falling out with her parents has also been supporting herself by working 35 hours a week as a roller skating Sonic Drive-In carhop. In the face of extreme hardship and troubled finances, Tiffany perseveres. She wants to study nursing, a field she says, that is more reliable than music.


Like so many schools across the country, Sinfonia’s music program is ever on the verge of being cut. An economically struggling town of 45K, Newark voters rejected raising taxes that would secure the schools’ extracurricular programs including the Sinfonia.


As Tiffany puts it, “Music programs always seem among the first to go. No job security in Tchaikovsky.”


Most people don’t realize the full impact that cutting music programs have on children’s lives. Numerous studies have indicated that musicians outperform nonmusicians on a variety of tasks, ranging from language to mathematics. Public speaking can also be included on this list. Musicians often make great public speakers, and there is scientific proof to back that up.


In a 2007 study conducted at Northwestern University, members of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory concluded that playing music is directly related to public speaking capabilities.  


In the study, twenty-nine adult subjects first “completed a musical history form that assessed beginning age and length of musical training, practice frequency and intensity, as well as how often they attended musical performances and listened to music.” Then, they were presented with various visual and auditory stimuli: the speech syllable “da,” a cello being bowed, a video of a male saying “da,” and a video of a musician bowing a cello. During stimuli introduction, participants had their brains scanned for activity.


The data showed that musicians, compared with nonmusicians, have significantly more robust auditory and audiovisual brainstem responses to speech and music. Also, the study demonstrated a positive correlation between the levels of musical practice and pitch perception, or the ability to recognize tone. This skill is vital to public speaking because it allows for the comprehension of a speaker’s message and identity, as well as the emotional content of a message.


Equipped with this knowledge, it is evident that every time a student like Tiffany Clay is forced to put down her instrument, the public speaking community feels the blow. But luckily, her story has a happy ending. As it turns out, Sonic Corporation, headquartered in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City University have joined forces to offer Tiffany Clay a fall scholarship worth 100,000. OCU has both a renowned music school (having produced the Broadway star Kristen Chenoweth) and a strong nursing program.


Will she also become a spokesperson for Sonic -on roller-skates?


To learn more, please visit


June 9th, 2009 | Permalink | Trackback | Bookmark and Share

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