By: UCI Neurobiology Center Irvine
Second-Graders in Study Scored Higher than Others on Fractions and Proportional Math
Irvine, Calif. -- Taking piano lessons and solving math puzzles on a computer significantly improves specific math skills of elementary school children, according to a study by UC Irvine researchers.
The results of the study--published in the March issue of the journal Neurological Research--are the latest in a series that link musical training to the development of higher brain functions, said UCI physics professor emeritus Gordon Shaw, who led the study.
Researchers worked with 135 second-grade students at the 95th Street School in Los Angeles after conducting a pilot study with 102 Orange County students. Children given four months of piano keyboard training, as well as time playing with newly designed computer software, scored 27 percent higher on proportional math and fractions tests than other children. The study was funded through grants from the Texaco Foundation, The Gerard Family Trust and Newport Beach philanthropist Marjorie Rawlins.
Piano instruction is thought to enhance the brain's "hard-wiring" for spatial-temporal reasoning, or the ability to visualize and transform objects in space and time, Shaw said. Music involves ratios, fractions, proportions and thinking in space and time.
At the same time, the computer game--called Spatial-Temporal Animation Reasoning (STAR)--allows children to solve geometric and math puzzles that boost their ability to manipulate shapes in their minds. (Puzzle samples are available upon request.)
Children who took piano lessons and played with the math software performed better on tests of fractions and proportional math than children who took English language instruction on the computer and played with the math software, and better than those who had neither piano lessons nor experience with the math software, Shaw said. Puzzles in the STAR game allow children to apply the type of mentalacuity that appears to be heightened by piano practice.
The findings are significant because a grasp of proportional math and fractions is a prerequisite to math at higher levels, and children who do not master these areas of math cannot understand more advanced math critical to high-tech fields.
"Proportional math is usually introduced during the sixth grade, and has proved to be enormously difficult to teach to most children using the usual language-analytic methods," Shaw said. "Not only is proportional math crucial for all college-level science, but it is the first academic hurdle that requires the children to grasp underlying concepts before they can master the material. Rote learning simply does not work."
Students who used the software and played the piano also demonstrated a heightened ability to think ahead, Shaw said. "They were able to leap ahead several steps on problems in their heads," he noted.
These findings offer not only new insight into the theory of mental development, but also a potentially powerful teaching tool, capable of stimulating second-grade children to master critical sixth-grade reasoning concepts. The piano teaching and software helped children regardless of income level, boosting achievement of students in low socioeconomic settings.
The study is only the latest in a series linking musical training to the learning process. Prior UCI studies based on a mathematical model of the cortex predicted that early music training would enhance spatial-temporal reasoning, and a 1997 study indicated that preschool children given six months of piano keyboard lessons improved dramatically on such reasoning.
Research participants included Amy Graziano, a postdoctoral researcher in UCI's Department of Physics and Astronomy who designed and coordinated the project, and Matthew Peterson, a former student of Shaw's who is now a doctoral student in the Department of Vision Science at UC Berkeley. Shaw and Peterson administered the program through their non-profit Music Intelligence Neural Development (MIND) Institute in Irvine, and Peterson designed the STAR software. Graziano and Shaw are both part of the UCI Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, an internationally know n institute dedicated exclusively to the multi-disciplinary investigation of how the brain processes information and makes and stores memories.
The researchers plan to expand the study to six schools this fall to demonstrate its effectiveness in a variety of settings, and are seeking educators in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties who are interested in participating and can furnish a music teacher and computers. They also are developing new written math tests with Michael Martinez, UCI associate professor of education, and preparing materials to integrate piano training and the STAR software into the standard second-grade math curriculum. They eventually would like to apply the findings to the K-12 math and science curriculum, as well.
Shaw also has written a book on the science of music and the brain. "Music Enhances Learning: Keeping Mozart in Mind" (Academic Press) is scheduled for release in May. Shaw is known for his 1993 research that showed college students scored higher on spatial-temporal reasoning tests after listening to a Mozart piano sonata. Dubbed the "Mozart Effect" by media, the phenomenon prompted further interest in research to explore the relationship between music, intelligence and learning.