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Q&A: Researcher Describes Link Between Music Training, Cognition

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A small number of studies have begun to suggest a link between arts education and academic skills. Researchers at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California at Irvine last year decided to take such findings a step further. In a series of studies that are expected to be conducted over the next several years, the researchers are testing whether early music training can enhance some very specific cognitive skills in children.

Assistant Editor Debra Viadero talked about the progress of the studies last week with Frances Rauscher, the principal investigator for the project.

Q. What prompted you to look for a link between music training and abstract-reasoning skills?

A. It's based on a neurobiological model that says that music will enhance higher brain functions. There are certain synaptic connections being made [through music training that are similar to those required for abstract and spatial reasoning.] The idea is, the brain is constantly developing, so if you develop these connections earlier, they'll be more readily available for similar skills later on that we call higher brain functions, which are functions that last tens of seconds rather than a split second.

There are also relationships anecdotally between music and mathematics, and music and chess, and music and abstract- and spatial-reasoning skills. What drove us initially to look at music and higher brain functions was all of these anecdotes we had. Mozart used to do math in his spare time. The ancient Greeks divided math into four parts, one of which was music. ...

We also just completed another study where we had people listening to music for 10 minutes and then they did the abstract-reasoning portion of an intelligence test called the Stanford-Binet. They also did a relaxational tape for 10 minutes and [then] did the tests, and they sat in silence and then did the tests. We found that, with listening to music, these people did better than they did with either of the other two conditions.

Q. How will you measure whether music training is improving the higher brain functions of the children in your study?

A. In September, we started designing a pilot study, which we started conducting in November. Through the cooperation of three different preschools, we were able to test 3-year-olds--before they had any training--on these spatial reasoning skills, which, for 3-year-olds, included: tracing paths through pencil mazes, copying patterns from blocks, and choosing objects similar to a given object.

Three months later, we did a second round of testing. This was a very small sample to give us an idea of what we should be looking for in designing a larger study this coming fall.

Q. How many children were in the study?

A. In this sample, 11 people. In the larger one, we're going to have 180. ... We'll also be sending our own music teacher into the classrooms, and 60 children will be in a control group where they learn a foreign language. We just want to make sure they [the children in the experimental group] won't be doing better because they get special attention. We'll also be including a lot of disadvantaged children. We think the biggest effects will come from them. ...

The idea is we're not trying to make everyone a mathematician or a genius but [that] whatever inherent skills they have will be enhanced by music.

Q. What kind of music training did the children in the first sample get?

A. The type of music training depended on the school. One was the Irvine Conservatory of Music, and the children there had 10-minute lessons on an instrument.

At the Pacific School of Music and the Arts, they had "mommy and me'' classes at 2 and started lessons at 3. At the daycare center, they had 30 minutes a day of singing and music, which is a lot more than most day-care centers can provide.

Q. I take it your findings so far suggest you may be on the right track?

A. The preliminary results showed it's definitely worth exploring further. [The children's] scores were compared with how they did before training, taking into account they're a little older now, and with the standardized norm scores for all people who took the tests. ... All of the children did better, but it wasn't a high magnitude. ... We weren't expecting to get huge results in three months. The fact that we got any results at all was encouraging.

Q. If your hypothesis is correct, would all elementary schools do well to provide music training?

A. We're not positive at what age it would have the biggest effects, but elementary school is a good age. If we're correct, it could have a big effect on education [and make a strong case] that music should be included as part of the regular school curriculum. This is a really big deal out here, where just last week Los Angeles cut all of the music teachers out of the schools.

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