Can Music Make You Smarter?

By Wendy Harris
Post-Crescent staff writer

Exposing their young children to music just comes naturally to Jill and Bob Williams of Appleton.

“Music is a huge part of our life,” said Jill Williams, who plays piano, and also bassoon for the UW Fox Valley Concert Band and a local woodwind quintet.

Since Rose, 3, and her baby sister, Lillian, 9 months, were born, music has been as integral a part of their lives as learning to walk and talk. Bob, a baritone with the White Heron Chorale, is always singing at home. Jill, meanwhile, is frequently practicing for concerts, or playing the piano, while Rose dances and keeps time with her castanets and baby Lillian bounces nearby in her exer-saucer.

Jill is convinced all this music exposure is paying off.

“Rose is 3 and she is reading,” she said. “She has the gift of language and I can’t help but believe it’s because of rhythm and rhyming and the flow of music.”

A growing body of research supports her observations.

Exposing a child to great music — as a listener and as a player — is good for brain development.

“Nothing activates as many areas of the brain as music,” says researcher Donald A. Hodges, Covington Distinguished Professor of Music Education and director of the Music Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

And to answer a question that has been floating around both scholarly and in popular culture for a while: Does music make you smarter?

“The answer is ‘no’ in a superficial sense,” Hodges said. In 1993, experimenters claimed that listening to a Mozart sonata would make your IQ increase by eight points. Subsequent work, Hodges explained, proved that such listening would sharpen a subject’s spatial-temporal relationships momentarily. After a short while, the subject would go back to being just as smart as before. Or dumb.

But, he explained, a rich environment makes a difference: “The brain: Use it or lose it. The more education you have, the more the interconnections in the brain. Music changes the brain.”

It’s an observation that Patricia DeCorsey, coordinator of Lawrence University’s Early Childhood Music Program in Appleton, has been making for years.

“By introducing children to music, so many areas of the brain benefit at the same time, like the mathematical and language centers,” said DeCorsey. “It’s really a super-advantage.”

DeCorsey has headed the childhood music program for 15 years of its 20-year history. Age-appropriate classes are available for children as young as 6 months old.

“Children learn musical concepts only until about age 7,” DeCorsey said. “After that, the learning pretty much stops. That’s why it’s so important to start children early.”

Rose Williams started in the program when she was 2; and her sister, Lillian, will start this fall.

“We took the Mozart and movement class this past year and it’s just incredible how she came out of her shell,” Jill Williams said.

The Lawrence classes, led by trained professional musicians, introduce basic music concepts and give hands-on experience to play with a variety of folk, instrumental and percussion instruments.

Appleton mother Jennifer Ganser enrolled her first child, Jackie, in the program when she was a baby for something fun to do. Two more babies and five years later, Ganser believes her three children have gained more than just enjoyment from the classes.

“You can just see them light up when they are there,” Ganser said. “We’ve really seen them progress.”

Jackie, now 6, loves music at school and has been asking to take violin and piano lessons, Ganser added.

While music and brain research moves at a slow pace, Hodges has outlined some major findings:

Disproving earlier assumptions that musical activity takes place in the right hemisphere of the brain, the activity occurs with equal vigor in the left — or rational — hemisphere. Music is an emotional and intellectual activity that engages all the brain. Almost.

During performance, there is almost no activity in the frontal lobe, where conscious thought takes place. When Yo-Yo Ma is playing his cello in concert he’s not thinking, Hodges argues. All the thought took place earlier and if he were to think now it would impede his playing. He is simply performing, much like a highly trained athlete.

“Music is always a physical activity,” Hodges said. “Musicians are small-muscle athletes.” And not just the performer. A listener sitting still in a classical concert hall is having the area of the brain that controls motion stimulated. Thus, that convention — not moving during classical performances — is unnatural.

A person with brain damage from a stroke may not be able to speak but can sing because the area that controls music is not damaged, said Shannon de L’Etoile, who heads the music therapy program at the University of Miami.

A therapist, through meditation and other various techniques, will get the patient to sing a phrase, then change it to spoken language with an exaggerated rhythm, and finally to natural language.

“We are rerouting through the healthy part of the brain,” de L’Etoile said. “The spinal chord reacts immediately to rhythm.”

Such therapy can be used with Parkinson’s patients, she added.

And, researchers have learned that autistic children are capable of reproducing patterns of music, which a therapist can translate to language and to unlock the social interactions autism prevents.

“Music makes you smarter because it helps you understand yourself as a human being and your relationship to the world,” says Hodges.

Though, all humans are musical, regardless of training or IQ.

“From the least to the most intelligent, everyone can have a meaningful music experience,” he said.

Wendy Harris can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 526, or at wharris@postcrescent.com. Knight Ridder Newspapers reporter Enrique Fernandez and correspondent Jacob Goldstein contributed to this report.