By Debra Viadero
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
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
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
"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.
But the students' improved abilities faded within an hour. Music, the
investigators speculated, must somehow prime the brain to perform spatial-reasoning
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
'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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
"I once told my father that I'd never go into sales, and now, I think
I am," he says.