School & District Management

Piano Lessons Found To Enhance Reasoning

By Debra Viadero — March 12, 1997 4 min read

Giving piano lessons to preschoolers can sharpen some of the reasoning skills they will need to succeed in math and science later in life, a new study says.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh found that piano training was better than computer training at enhancing children’s spatial-temporal skills--their ability, in other words, to form mental images from physical objects or to see patterns in space and time.

Such skills are key to understanding proportion, geometry, and other mathematical and scientific concepts. Children who are proficient in this area might be good at putting together puzzles or building with Lego blocks, for example. Such children might grow up to be the architects who design bridges or the engineers who invent new technology.

“This is one of the important ways we reason,” said Gordon H. Shaw, a co-author of the study and a physicist at the University of California. “Obviously, there’s more work to be done, but if I were a parent or an educator, I’d want to take these findings into consideration.”

The study is the latest in a growing line of research suggesting that children’s early experiences determine their potential in life, whether they become talkers or tongue-tied, tone-deaf or musically talented.

At birth, a child’s brain contains billions of unconnected or loosely connected neurons or brain cells. Each experience, such as seeing a mother’s smile or hearing a parent talk, strengthens and forges the connections between particular cells. Connections that go unused, on the other hand, eventually wither.

Groups From 3 Preschools

For their study, Mr. Shaw and his University of Wisconsin partner, Frances H. Rauscher, focused on 78 children from three California preschools--including one serving mostly poor, inner-city families.

The investigators divided the children into four groups. One group of preschoolers took individual, 12- to 15-minute piano lessons twice a week and received singing instruction. Another group took 30-minute singing lessons five days a week, and a third group trained on computers. The remaining group received no special instruction.

All of the children took tests designed to measure different kinds of spatial-reasoning skills before the lessons began and then again several months later. After six months, the researchers found, the piano-trained children had improved their scores by 34 percent on a task requiring them to put together a picture of a camel from pieces of a puzzle. On the other tasks, which all involved spatial recognition, a different, more commonly practiced skill, there was no change.

The other three groups of children, in comparison, improved only slightly on all the tasks.

Music-industry groups, including the National Piano Foundation and the National Association of Music Merchants, financed the research. The findings were published last month in the journal Neurological Research.

Building on a Theory

This latest study builds on Mr. Shaw’s theory that the connecting cell patterns formed in the brain for certain higher-order thinking skills are identical to the patterns of notes in certain complex styles of music.

In an earlier study with Ms. Rauscher, a former concert cellist, he found that listening to Mozart improved college students’ spatial skills. But the effect faded within an hour.

In the new study, however, the benefits lasted at least until the next day. That is enough time, the researchers said, to suggest that the effect could be long-lasting.

What the researchers do not yet know is whether lessons on the violin, flute, or any other musical instrument would give children the same kind of intellectual boost, or whether older children would profit as much as the preschoolers did from musical training.

Testing the Links

A similar study is under way with 73 kindergarten students in California. This time, the students will get piano lessons in groups of four, and they will be tested on a computer task more directly involving mathematics. Students will answer proportion questions as they watch shapes fold and unfold on their computer screens.

“We believe part of the problem involving ratios and proportion is that they are taught using fractions, and we think a visual-spatial method would be better,” said Amy Graziano, who is working on the new study with Mr. Shaw.

The researchers said a handful of schools across the country are also testing possible links between music and intelligence on their own. In one such study, 1st graders who took part in a special music and visual arts program at The Music School in Providence, R.I., saw their reading and math skills increase dramatically. A report on that study was published last May in the journal Nature.

Eventually, all of these findings could help raise the status of music in the curriculum, the researchers and music educators say.

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