Bach to Basics

By Debra Viadero — May 01, 1998 8 min read

—Debra Viadero

Research on music is finding its way into all sorts of unusual venues these days, thanks to some highly publicized studies suggesting that learning to sing or play an instrument can boost students’ intellectual skills. Such research prompted Governor Zell Miller of Georgia, for example, to propose that his state distribute compact discs of classical music to new mothers as they leave the hospital. State lawmakers balked at Miller’s plan, so recording companies eventually agreed to foot the $105,000 bill for the CDs.

But can music really make children smarter?

Researchers can’t say for sure. Studies on the link between music and learning are a thin lot, and that has led some critics to contend that the enthusiasm in education, media, and policymaking circles for the new music-learning research is premature. “It seems to be one of those stories that, for whatever reason, has captured the public’s fancy,” says John Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a St. Louis-based philanthropic institution that supports research in cognitive science. “To base policy on it is far-fetched.”

Still, the handful of studies offers some promise. And that promise has persuaded school systems nationwide to revive school music programs that had been scaled back or disbanded because of tight budgets. With music now touted as a catalyst to learning, some educators figure they can’t afford not to have music instruction in the curriculum.

The new studies on music and learning stem, in part, from a growing line of research on the development of the human brain. Children are born with 100 billion unconnected or loosely connected neurons, or nerve cells, according to these studies. Each childhood experience—even something as simple as seeing a mother’s smile or hearing a father talk—forges the links between cells or strengthens them. Pathways in the brain that go unused, meanwhile, eventually wither away. Thus, what a child is exposed to at an early age can influence brain development and help determine adult skills and abilities.

Some researchers believe that music training, in some shape or form, may lead to long-term changes in the brain’s hard-wiring. In the early 1990s, Gordon Shaw, a researcher at the University of California at Irvine, and his partner, Frances Rauscher, conducted the study that first catapulted research on music and learning from the pages of arcane research journals to television talk shows. Working with a group of 84 college students, they found that listening to a Mozart piano sonata for 10 minutes improved the students’ spatial-temporal reasoning skills—their ability to form mental images from physical objects or to see patterns in space and time. Such skills, key to engineers and architects, aid in understanding proportion, geometry, and other mathematical and scientific concepts.

Although the students’ improved abilities faded within an hour, the researchers speculated that music must somehow prime the brain to perform spatial-reasoning tasks. The team tested the idea again a few years later, this time as part of a more-comprehensive investigation involving 78 children from three California preschools. The researchers divided the children into four groups. One group took private, 12- to 15-minute piano lessons each week. Another group took 30-minute singing lessons five days a week, and a third group was trained to work on computers. The remaining children received no special lessons.

All the children took tests designed to measure a range of spatial abilities both at the start of the experiment and again six to eight months later. The results were mixed. On some tasks, there was no change in the test scores of the children studying music. But on a task involving assembling a puzzle of a camel, the piano-trained children boosted their scores by 34 percent. Their improved skills lasted at least until the next day—enough time, the researchers concluded, to suggest that piano lessons may spur more-permanent changes in the brain’s hard-wiring.

“What we think music is doing is stabilizing the neural connections necessary for this kind of spatial-temporal ability,” says Rauscher, who is now an assistant professor of cognitive development at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

But Rauscher, who is a former concert cellist, stops short of touting music as a smart pill. “I think the evidence is solid enough to say, ‘Let’s improve and expand our music education programs for young children,’” she says. But there is little evidence to suggest that simply listening to music, as Governor Miller would like Georgia’s next generation to do, produces lasting intellectual benefits. “One of the things we have to be careful about is jumping to conclusions that we don’t have data on at all. I find that Mozart-makes-you-smarter thing is quite a bit of a leap.”

Rauscher is now busy expanding her piano research. Experiments are under way with groups of preschoolers, kindergartners, and 4th graders in Wisconsin. So far, she has collected data only on the kindergartners, who were given group keyboard lessons rather than private instruction. The numbers so far jibe with her initial research: Keyboard training improved their spatial-temporal skills but not other kinds of spatial skills.

A study published in the journal Nature in May 1996 helped strengthen the link between music and learning. Martin Gardiner, now a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, was the researcher in a team study involving six 1st grade classrooms in two public schools in nearby Pawtucket. Students in two of the classrooms received traditional music and visual-arts instruction. Four other classrooms of students were taught to sing using the Kodaly method. Under that approach, developed by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, students sing songs that are sequenced in difficulty and play musical games involving rhythm and pitch.

At the end of seven months, the students getting the specialized musical training were doing the same or slightly better in reading than their counterparts in the control group. But in math, they had zoomed ahead of their peers—even though they had started out slightly behind. At the end of two years, the Kodaly-trained students were still ahead of their classmates in math. “The impact seemed to be seen in kids whether they entered in the bottom, middle, or top of their kindergarten class in terms of scores,” Gardiner says. “There seemed to be this special boost for math.”

Gardiner has since repeated versions of his experiment with students in Minneapolis and with older students and arrived at similar conclusions. Music, he believes, aids children’s understanding of such mathematical concepts as number lines. “In the case of singing on pitch, pitch has a pitch line of its own,” he explains. “‘Do’ is less than ‘re,’ and ‘re’ is less than ‘mi.’” On a keyboard, the progression may be even easier to grasp.

Some researchers contend that musical compositions may have a certain mathematical precision. The compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach are widely thought to have a mathematical basis. And Mozart was so obsessed with math as a boy that he covered the walls of his house with figures and sums. Still, scholars disagree over whether he structured his musical compositions according to mathematical formulas.

Gardiner, however, sees nothing inherent in music that boosts math skills. Rather, he says, music training simply conditions the brain to do tasks similar to what it has to do when working out math problems. “If you develop some kind of mental skill involved in one area of learning, and if you need that skill in some other area of learning, the brain can at least sometimes make learning easier through transfer.”

Although researchers don’t know exactly what happens in the brain when a child learns to sing or play the piano, evidence suggests that some process is certainly occurring. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard Medical School neurology instructor, has used magnetic-resonance-imaging technology to examine the brains of musicians who took up their instruments before age 7, musicians who started later, and nonmusicians. He found that certain regions of the brain, such as the corpus callosum and the right motor cortex, were larger in musicians who started their training before age 7. Similarly, musicians with perfect pitch—the ability to identify musical notes heard out of context—have larger left temporal lobes than do nonmusicians.

Does that mean that children should get music lessons before their 7th birthdays? Not necessarily, Schlaug says. “It may be much easier to become a concert pianist if you start very early because the brain may adapt to challenges in a certain way,” he says. “But there are enough examples out there where people started playing in their second or third decade and they’re doing fine.”

“We just don’t know so much about how the brain processes music,” Schlaug adds. “We know more about the way we process language.”

That lack of knowledge has not dampened the renewed interest in music training among parents and policymakers. In California, for example, a state-appointed committee is exploring how to rebuild school music programs that have been cut back over the past decade.

Despite such interest, says John Mahlmann, executive director of the Reston, Virginia-based Music Educators National Conference, music programs are still viewed as curricular frills in many school districts. “Are we better off now than we were last year? Yes. Are we better off now than 10 years ago? I’m not so sure,” he says.

Regardless, the new music research is persuasive enough that Gary Wolfman, director of Appleton High School-North’s orchestra, stuffs highlights of the findings into concert programs. Ideally, Wolfman would like students to join his program because they love music—not because they want to boost their math skills. But he also knows a good selling point when he sees one. “I once told my father that I’d never go into sales,” he says, “and now, I think I am.”