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“Will Piano Lessons Make My Child Smarter?”

(Parade Magazine, June 14, 1998)
an excerpt

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."