School & District Management

Music on the Mind

By Debra Viadero — April 08, 1998 10 min read
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Research on music learning is finding its way into all sorts of unaccustomed venues these days.

When the orchestra at Appleton High School-North in Appleton, Wis., performs, concertgoers usually find a little something extra in the program notes. Tucked behind the listing of the evening’s musical selections are summaries of the latest research linking music learning to improved thinking skills.

Research on music learning is finding its way into all sorts of unaccustomed venues these days, thanks to some highly publicized studies suggesting that musical training has an added benefit: It may boost some nonmusical intellectual skills.

Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia, for example, cited the research earlier this year when he proposed that his state distribute compact discs of classical music to new mothers as they leave the hospital. Recording companies eventually agreed to foot the $105,000 bill for the CDs.

The fall 1997 issue of the industry magazine The School Music Dealer featured as its cover story “Music and the Brain: How Recent Studies Linking Music to Learning Can Positively Affect Your Business.” And, just in the past few months, two Florida legislators have proposed requiring state-funded child-care centers to provide daily doses of Beethoven to their young charges.

But can music really make children smarter?

Researchers can’t say for sure. Compared with some other educational interventions, the studies on music learning are a thin lot; researchers are busy trying to repeat and extend their findings. Little is known, for example, about what kinds of musical training produce results and what kinds don’t, who benefits most, and how long any intellectual gains that result from music learning will last.

That has led some critics to contend that all 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 T. Bruer, the president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a St. Louis-based philanthropy that supports research in cognitive science. “To base policy on it is far-fetched.”

Still, the handful of studies offers some promise. And, says one California researcher who is studying music and learning, if the findings inspire parents to give their children music lessons and prod schools to beef up their music programs, no harm is done. As researcher Gordon Shaw of the University of California, Irvine, points out, music enriches as an art, a source of pleasure, and a tutor of discipline.

“It’s certainly a no-lose situation,” he says.

Beethoven and Brains

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. And each experience, such as seeing a mother’s smile or hearing a parent talk, strengthens or forges the links between cells. Pathways in the brain that go unused eventually wither away. Thus, a child’s early experiences can help determine what that child will be like in adulthood.

Some researchers believe that music learning, in some shape or form, may count among the kinds of experiences that lead to long-term changes in the brain’s hard wiring.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Shaw and his partner, Frances H. Rauscher, conducted the study that first catapulted research on music and learning from the pages of arcane research journals to television talk shows.

Using a group of 84 college students, they showed 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.

Music, the investigators speculated, must somehow prime the brain to perform spatial-reasoning tasks.

But the students’ improved abilities faded within an hour. Music, the investigators speculated, 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 investigators divided the children into four groups. One group of preschoolers 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 on computers. The remaining children received no special lessons.

All of 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. By the end of the study period, the piano-trained children had improved their scores by 34 percent on a task requiring them to put together a puzzle of a camel. But on a task measuring spatial recognition--a different type of spatial skill that is practiced more commonly in the course of daily life--there was no change. For that task, children were asked to point to a matching picture of a square intersected by a line.

This time, however, the benefits lasted at least until the next day. That is enough time, the researchers said, to suggest that piano lessons may be spurring 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 Ms. Rauscher, who is now an assistant professor of cognitive development at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

‘A Bit of a Leap’

But Ms. Rauscher, who is a former concert cellist, stops short of pushing music in and of itself as a kind of 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 just listening to music, as Gov. Miller would like Georgia’s next generation to do, produces lasting intellectual benefits, she adds.

“One of the things we have to be careful about is jumping to conclusions that we don’t have data on at all,” she says. “I find that ‘Mozart makes you smarter’ thing is quite a bit of a leap.”

She has come across only one other study that has looked at the effect of music listening, but it focused on rats. For 12 hours at a stretch each day, the rats and their unborn babies heard either white noise, silence, classical music, or Philip Glass compositions. The latter is a well-known minimalist composer whose work is repetitive and features long pauses between notes--unlike Mozart, whose compositions are complex and richly patterned. The rats raised on the steady diet of classical music ran through a maze faster, making fewer mistakes than the other rats did.

Ms. Rauscher is now busy testing her theory on people. 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 suggest that the same pattern that occurred in the earlier study held true for the 67 kindergartners: 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 bolster the link between music and learning a little further. Martin F. Gardiner, now a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University in Providence, R.I., 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 the type of music and visual arts instruction typically found in many schools across the country. Four other classrooms of students were taught to sing using the Kodaly method. That approach, developed by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, emphasizes singing songs that are sequenced in difficulty. Students also 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.

‘One of the things we have to be careful about is jumping to conclusions that we don’t have any data on at all.’

Francis H. Rauscher
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

At the end of two years, the Kodaly-trained students were still ahead of their classmates in math. And, among them, the best-performing pupils were those with two years of musical training.

“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,” Mr. Gardiner says. “There seemed to be this special boost for math.” Mr. Gardiner has since repeated versions of his experiment with students in the later elementary grades and arrived at similar conclusions.

Music and Mathematics

Mr. Gardiner believes the boost comes in part because music aids children’s understanding of such concepts as number lines.

“In the case of singing on pitch, pitch has a pitch line of its own,” explains Mr. Gardiner. “Do is less than re, and re is less than mi.” On a keyboard, the progression may be even easier to grasp.

But Mr. Gardiner also believes that music may not be unique in offering a skill that can be useful in other disciplines.

“What I’m saying is, 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,” he says.

Some researchers also say that various musical compositions may have a certain mathematical precision. Mozart was obsessed with math as a boy--even covering the walls of his house with figures and sums. But scholars still disagree over whether he deliberately structured his musical compositions according to mathematical formulas.

Although researchers don’t know exactly what happens in the brain when a child learns to sing or play a piano, there is some biological evidence to suggest that something different may indeed be going on.

Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard Medical School neurology instructor, has done a series of experiments using 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 musical training before age 7. Similarly, musicians with perfect pitch--the ability, in other words, to identify musical notes heard out of context--have larger left temporal lobes than nonmusicians do.

Does that mean that children should get music lessons before their 7th birthdays? Not necessarily, Dr. 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.”

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

“I also think there’s not really such a big group doing music-related research,” he says. “You must really have to have some sort of musical experience in order to do research.”

That lack of knowledge has not hampered a renewed interest in music learning among parents and policymakers. Despite such interest, says John J. Mahlmann, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based Music Educators National Conference, music programs are still viewed as curricular frills in many school districts.

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.

“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,” Mahlmann says.

And that’s the kind of insecurity that drives educators such as Gary Wolfman, the director of Appleton High School-North’s orchestra, to stuff research studies into concert programs. Ideally, Mr. Wolfman would like students to join his program because they love music--not because they want to boost their math grades. But he also knows a good selling point when he sees one.

“I once told my father that I’d never go into sales, and now, I think I am,” he says.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as Music on the Mind


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