Music Education: Music and its effect on brain development and intelligence

By: Meryl van Noie

This article was written mainly to summarize the workshop a few weeks ago, as many people enquired about it. I’ve tried to include as many points that we covered as possible, although I may still have left out some of the many interesting discussions we had with teachers and parents who attended the talk. Thanks to those of you who were there – it was good to see that there is an interest in this subject and most of you gave me some good feedback. As I mentioned at the workshop, my interest in how music technology affects brain development and intelligence is purely a personal ‘hobby’ and I have not conducted any formal studies myself. What did come out of the discussions was that perhaps it was time that such a study was done in South Africa.

My interest in this subject was sparked after reading an article in TIME magazine (June 2000). They published an article called "MUSIC AND THE BRAIN", which delved into the possibilities that music may have a profound effect on the development of various skills in children. Since then I have been absorbing anything I can find on the subject and use it to promote the importance of music education to not just potential musicians, but to all children.

Although many people may be aware that music has some kind of an effect on them, most people assume it’s a purely spiritual or emotional experience. Music evokes emotions like sadness, love, resolve, and peacefulness – perhaps even violence. But is it really purely an emotional experience or does it affect the human body physically and are there scientific after-effects and proof of his?

Many pre-school and kindergarten teachers are well aware that children learn best through songs and music forms a large part of the teaching process at an early level. However, as children grow older, they seem to sing less and less as part of their learning process and as most of us know, music is almost an endangered species in our current school system. It falls under the umbrella of arts and culture so less time is available for teaching music lessons.

In spite of the influence that music has on humans, scientists have not spent much time to understand why or how it affects us so profoundly. Until very recently in terms of human history and scientific research, we have merely accepted that music affects us, but that we don’t know how, why or even what the after-effects could be. According to documentation of the American Music Conference, the earliest studies recorded were by a Dr. Gordan Shaw in 1985.

In February 1997 Dr Shaw and his partner Dr Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin proved that pre-schoolers who studied piano performed up to 34% better in spatial and temporal reasoning abilities than pre-schoolers who spent the same amount of time learning to use computers.

Pre-schoolers who took singing and keyboard lessons scored 80% higher on object-assembly tests than students at the same pre-school who did not have music lessons. (Rauscher and Shaw Oct. 1996)

In a study of medical school applicants, 66% of music majors who applied were admitted, the highest percentage of any group. Only 44% of biochemistry majors were admitted. (Study by Lewis Thomas, 1994)

Rhythm students learn fractions better: After learning eight, quarter, half and whole note concepts, second graders scored 100% higher than their peers who were taught fractions using traditional methods.

Scientists are not yet exactly sure how or why this occurs – just that there is a definite link between brain development, mathematical skills and cognitive skills in children. What is also clear is that the ability to experience and react to music is deeply embedded in the biology of the nervous system. While music tends to be processed mostly in the right hemisphere of the brain, there is no single set of cells devoted to this task. Different networks of neurons are activated, depending on whether a person is listening to music or playing an instrument, and whether or not the music involves lyrics.

A larger area in the auditory cortex, which is the section of the brain that brings music and speech into conscious experience, is responsive to piano tones in adult musicians compared with non-musicians. In addition certain brain structures are also bigger in musicians. (see picture) The primary motor cortex and the cerebellum, which are involved in movement and coordination, are larger in adult musicians than in people who don’t play an instrument.

The area that connects the two sides of the brain – the corpus callosum - is also larger. German scientists found that the brain area used to analyse musical pitch is an average of 25% larger in adult musicians. The younger the musical training begins - the larger the area.

Musically trained adults perform better on word memory tests than other adults.

Children who take music lessons may experience advantages with respect to some cognitive and perception skills. Pre-school children, who had piano lessons for about 6 months, perform better than other pre-school children on puzzle-solving tests.

Researchers then tried to improve this music effect by adding other training components.

One study found that second-grade kids who took piano lessons and played special computer math games, scored higher on math tests than children who played the math games, but had English language instruction instead of piano lessons. Scientists are now testing whether the addition of another set of lessons, which incorporates the PC games into the school’s standard math program, will boost the young pianists’ math results even more.

Preliminary findings indicate that second-graders who received this version perform as well as fourth-graders in fractions, ratios, symmetry, graphs and other algebra problems.

So – is it just any type of music that has this effect? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but what has been proven is that certain types of music have a greater effect than others. Rats exposed to intricate Mozart melodies completed a maze more rapidly and with fewer errors than other rats exposed to silence or with noise.

On the other hand researchers say that just listening is not enough. Listening to music (including Mozart) has a smaller effect than learning to play any kind of music on a musical instrument.

There are still many questions unanswered. One of the teachers asked why most of the studies seemed to concentrate on piano and keyboard skills - why not the violin or flute for instance? Perhaps it’s one of the easiest instruments to teach at a very young age. I think that different skills are probably more advanced in musicians who play different instruments. For instance in this age of technology at the relatively old age of 18, I taught myself to type and use a computer. Perhaps being a piano player had something to do with the fact that I started to type with two fingers and after six months worked my way up to eight fingers and about 60 words per minute. I still use only eight fingers and my word count is probably a bit higher now, with the added bonus that I don’t have to look down or think about where the keys are anymore.

After absorbing all of these facts, it is clear that there are still many unanswered questions regarding music, intelligence and brain development. For instance: why do we appreciate music and why do some of us favor certain types of music to others, while other people like completely different types of music?

Did our musical ancestors have an evolutionary edge over other mere mortals? Is that perhaps why people like Mozart and Beethoven could compose so many great pieces of music? Perhaps they were an elite few who could play, read, write and understand music in a world where most other people could not.


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By Meryl van Noie of the Baxter Theatre Soundhouse

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