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Music and Math

Giving young students piano lessons in combination with specially designed computer games can sharpen their understanding of proportions and fractions, a new study concludes.

The research, published last month in the journal Neurological Research, describes the latest in a growing line of experiments to explore the link between music training and the development of spatial-reasoning skills.

Spatial skills enable students to hold patterns or images in their minds and to manipulate them to solve problems. Such skills are crucial for architects and engineers. They also help in learning certain mathematical concepts, such as proportions and fractions.

Previous research has shown that piano lessons can improve preschoolers' ability to solve puzzles and do other spatial-reasoning tasks. In the new study, however, researchers focused on 237 2nd graders in two California elementary schools--one serving low-income families and one in a middle-class neighborhood--and coupled the music lessons with video games designed to teach proportions, ratios, and fractions.

By themselves, the video games produced gains in students' understanding of those concepts after one month.

But coupling the games with keyboard lessons proved to be an even more potent combination. Pupils who took both music and computer lessons twice a week did 100 percent better on proportional-mathematics problems than those who received no special training.

"One reason we're teaching them to play piano is they have to move their fingers in the correct place at the correct time. They learn to sight-read, and they have to look ahead and determine where the notes are in order to know where to put their fingers--and that's all spatial-temporal," says Matthew Peterson, one of three co-authors of the study. He is a researcher with the University of California, Berkeley, and with the Music Intelligence Neural Development, or MIND, Institute in Irvine, Calif.

"On another level, we believe the sounds that you get are special for music. They're not random sounds but very nice patterns," he adds. "By listening to them, you're sort of getting the brain in tune to listen to spatial-temporal patterns."

The video games succeed, Mr. Peterson believes, because they rely on visual images, rather than words, to communicate mathematical concepts.

"One big implication of all this is that the standard language-and-analytic way of getting many of these big, fundamental concepts across isn't necessarily the best way," he says. "We're showing there are other ways to do it." The researchers' next step: to see whether students can translate their newfound skills with visual problems to more sophisticated word problems involving proportional concepts.

New U.S. Dropout Figures

While the gap in the dropout rates of black and white students is narrowing, the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education show that Hispanic students continue to leave school in alarmingly high numbers.

The department's 10th annual report on dropouts shows that overall dropout rates have been decreasing slightly since the 1970's.

Much of that improvement has come among black students, who now leave school at rates comparable to those of white students.

But Hispanic students have been largely left behind. In 1997, for example, 9.5 percent of Hispanic students in grades 10 through 12 left school without a diploma. Only 3.6 percent of white students and 5 percent of black students in the same age group dropped out of school that year.

Nationwide, more than a quarter of Hispanic young adults do not have a high school diploma and are not in school. The rate is even higher--39 percent--among recent Hispanic immigrants.

"One reason that people have sometimes discounted high school dropout rates for Hispanics is that they say, 'Oh, well, they're a bunch of immigrants who come to the U.S. and never enter the educational system,' " said Phillip Kaufman, the lead author of the report, which was compiled for the National Center for Education Statistics by MPR Associates, a Berkeley, Calif., research firm.

But the statistics show that even Hispanic students born in this country have higher dropout rates than their non-Hispanic peers, Mr. Kaufman says.

The report also points to overall increases during the 1990s in the proportion of young adults who hold an alternative high school credential. That percentage increased from 4.9 percent in 1990 to 9.1 percent in 1997. But Mr. Kaufman says it's too early to say whether the increase is real or due to a change in data-collection procedures.

The report, "Dropout Rates in the United States: 1997," is available online at:

Teachers' Use of Technology

Technology may be opening up teachers' access to the outside world, but only a small minority of teachers use it to communicate with one another.

That finding comes from a national survey of 2,250 teachers in 4th through 12th grade classrooms. More than two-thirds of the teachers surveyed said they surf the Internet for information to use in their classroom lessons. But only 16 percent of the group use e-mail to communicate with teachers in other schools.

Predictably, whether teachers use e-mail in their professional lives has a lot to do with access. Teachers with Internet connections both at home and in school, for example, were four times more likely to conduct regular e-mail exchanges with other teachers than those with more limited access.

Researchers were somewhat surprised, though, to learn that teachers with e-mail at school but not at home turned out to be bigger users than those who could go online only from their homes.

"This is a small indication that providing teachers with the resources of a professional may result in greater professional communication," writes Henry Jay Becker, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the principal investigator on the project. Read more about the survey, conducted last year, at:

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 18, Issue 31, Page 33

Published in Print: April 14, 1999, as Research Notes
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