Music is ordered patterns of sounds. The decoding of music is actually a highly complex brain function, which consists of neural firing patterns organized in a highly structured spatial-temporal code over large regions of the cortex for some tens of seconds (Boettcher et al., Mathematics and Music, 1995). The provocative studies by Frances H. Rauscher and others at the University of California Irvine postulated that music and higher cognitive functions share these same neural highways. The questions became, could listening to or studying music set up “highways” in the brain along which other her brain functions could travel as well.
The first proactive study, performed by Rauscher in 1993, postulated that perhaps there was not simply a correlation between spatial reasoning and music but a casual relationship. The experiment required a group of undergraduate students to take three sets of spatial reasoning tasks on a standard IQ test. Each set of spatial reasoning tasks was preceded by (1) listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448, for 10 minutes, (2) listening to a relaxation tape, or (3) silence. All 36 students participated in all three listening conditions. When translated into the actual spatial IQ scores, they were 119, 111 and 110, respectively. In short, listening to Mozart increased their performance 9 points on an IQ test.
Surprising as the results of Rauscher’s IQ studies were, the effects of listening to Mozart were only short-term. Having proved fundamental causality between math and music, the researcher now questioned whether it was possible to affect the brain’s ability to think spatially more permanently. If musical study is applied at a time when a child’s brain is still maturing, perhaps music could have a permanent effect upon a child’s ability to reason spatially, or, as the researchers put it, “to provide long-term enhancements of nonverbal cognitive abilities.”
Thirty-three children, ages 3 years to 4 years, from Los Angeles County preschools were studied for nine months. One half was used as a control group, and the other half was given music lessons for eight months. The training consisted of weekly 10 to 15-minute private electronic keyboard lessons, daily supervised practice periods, and daily 30-minute group singing sessions. The five tests administered at the conclusion of the eight months were the spatial reasoning portions from the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence-Revised and the Stanford-Benet Intelligence Scale. The group of children who had studied music for eight months scored significantly higher on the object assembly tasks, where they were shown pieces of a puzzle and told to put them together to make something as fast as they could. The tasks required that a child form a mental image and then orient physical objects to reproduce that image. In the other four tasks, where children were given solid objects or drawings to match or copy, requiring no mental image, there was no difference between the group that had musical training and the control group that had not.
These studies have validated what many of us have felt for years: music study is good for kids. It is good for them socially, it is good for them physically, it is good for them intellectually. Electronic keyboards sell for as little as $25. Buy one for your child and let him or her have fun! And listen, listen, listen. Remember Mozart will actually make you think better.
It is interesting to note that listening to minimalist or rhythmically repetitive music, such as that by Philip Glass, did not enhance spatial task performance; so listening to heavy metal or rap will not help your child’s spatial reasoning. Similarly, listening to an audio taped short story did not facilitate spatial reasoning; the TV is not helpful either! Many mathematicians from the mathematics faculty at UC Irvine, when interviewed, stated that they could do lower-level math with music on but found classical and baroque music virtually impossible to listen to while doing their research. This is probably because these use the same areas of the brain.