“Will Piano Lessons Make My Child Smarter?”
(Parade Magazine, June 14, 1998)
In 1993, two researchers reported that college students who listened to 10 minutes of Mozart’s Sonata in D for Two Pianos, scored 9 points higher on a spatial-temporal test than when they had 10 minutes of silence or relaxation tapes. (Spatial-temporal reasoning is the ability not only to recognize objects as the same or different but also to be able to form the mental images of physical objects. It is a key to the higher brain function required in mathematics, physics and engineering.)
The researchers, Dr. Gordon Shaw, a physicist at the University of California at Irvine, and Dr. Frances Rauscher, a psychologist now at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, called their findings the “Mozart effect.” Actually, the Mozart experiment began in 1990, when researchers discovered that the brain in a sense make its own music. Using a computer-generated model of neural firing patterns (electrical brain activity), Dr. Shaw’s research team fed various brain patterns through a synthesizer. What they heard were recognizable but different styles of music. Some sounded like Baroque, some like Eastern music, and others like folk music.
That gave the researchers an idea: Perhaps music itself might also make those neurons communicate.
So Dr. Rauscher and Dr. Shaw began working with inner-city preschoolers to see how musical training might affect their brain development. They had four groups: one was given keyboard lessons; the second, computer lessons; the third, singing sessions; and the fourth, no lessons, only the standard curriculum. Six months later, the keyboard students performed 34 percent better on spatial-temporal ability tests than any other group, including the computer students.
"There's an overlap in the brain mechanism -- in the neurons used to process music, language, mathematics and abstract reasoning," says Dr. Mark Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. "We believe a handful of neural codes is used by the brain, so exercising the brain through music strengthens other cognitive skills. It's a lot like saying" If you exercise your body by running, you enhance your ability not only to run but also to play soccer or basketball."