What Educator’s Learn from Science


The case for music in the schools by Dr. Frances Rauscher Keynote speaker for WMEA Convention, Tacoma, February 1996 – This article appeared in the October 1995 issue of VOICE, the official Washington Music Education Association publication, and is used and retyped with permission from the editor of VOICE. (Dr. Rauscher’s paper ‘Music & Spatial Task Performance: A Causal Relationship’.

It is an anomaly that while music is undermined in our public schools as a legitimate subject for serious study, there is a rise in the body of research demonstrating that music is a valuable tool for educators. Those who consider music to be an extra-curricular activity unworthy of inclusion as a core subject are overlooking the unique qualities that music instruction provides to all children. It is the purpose of this article to provide educators with further ammunition in the war to keep music in the public schools.

The work discussed below is being carried out at the University of California at Irvine, under the direction of myself and Dr. Gordon Shaw. The work was motivated by a structured neuronal model of the cerebral cortex developed by Drs. Shaw and Xiaodan Leng, which hypothesized a causal connection between music training and spatial ability (Leng and Shaw, 1991). Music activity, they proposed, strengthens neural firing patterns organized in a spatial-temporal code over large regions of the cortex. These firing patterns are also exploited by spatial reasoning tasks. This model, together with studies which show correlations between music training and spatial tasks, led to the following prediction: Music, which is cross-culturally appreciated from birth, can be used to develop these inherent brain patterns, along with their associated behaviors.

A small pilot study conducted in 1993 provided the first supporting behavioral data. Ten preschoolers’ spatial abilities improved after music training (Rauscher, Shaw, Levine & Wright, 1993). Several further studies continue to support the model. Music, then, may be an important element of human intelligence.

Brief Overview

To discover the relationship between music and other reasoning abilities, scientists employ several methods. Two of the most popular approaches are 1) gathering physiological data using brain imaging techniques (EEG, MRI, PET) to map the brain areas that may be common to musical reasoning and other abilities, and 2) gathering behavioral data to support or disprove a model of music and intelligence. The most information, of course, will come from a combination of both techniques.

Preliminary Studies

In 1992-1993, a pilot study found that a small group of preschoolers provided with several months of music training scored significantly higher on a task designed to measure spatial-temporal reasoning than was expected by population norms (Rauscher, Shaw, Levine & Wright, 1993). Two schools participated in the study: a middle-income school and a school for at-risk children. Although the effect was significant for both schools, the at-risk school children improved dramatically-by 91%.

This was followed in 1993 by a study designed to determine if merely listening to music might improve spatial IQ. We found that college students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos (K44S) scored 8-9 points higher on tasks designed to measure spatial IQ than when they listened to ten minutes of either self-hypnosis relaxation instructions or silence (Rauscher, Shaw & Ky, 1993). This effect, however, was temporary. It lasted only 10-15 minutes.

In 1994 we replicated this study, and again found that spatial-temporal reasoning improved after listening to the Mozart Sonata (Rauscher, Shaw & Ky, 1993). Daily exposure to the Mozart produced daily increases in scores. This enhancing effect does not, however, apply to all styles of composition or to all domains of intelligence. Unlike Mozart’s music, listening to Phillip Glass’ minimalist music did not enhance spatial-temporal reasoning. Further, the students’ scores on a short-term memory task did not improve after listening to the Mozart versus silence.

Although the “Mozart effect” is very intriguing, and holds great promise for further explorations into the transfer of musical processing to other domains of reasoning, the effect’s limitations suggest that merely listening to music is probably not sufficient for lasting enhancement of spatial-temporal intelligence. Listening to music is a passive experience for most people, and does not require the involvement that actively making music does. This observation, together with the predictions of the Leng and Shaw model and the long-term effects shown by the music training pilot study, led us to suspect that actively making music has greater benefits for spatial temporal intelligence than merely listening to music.

Last year, we replicated the pilot study with a larger group of preschoolers, 19 who were provided with music lessons and 14 who were not (Rauscher, Shaw, Levine, Ky & Wright, 1994). The lessons consisted of 10-15 minute private keyboard instruction, 30-minute daily group singing lessons, and daily supervised keyboard practice periods. Instruction was not confined to Classical Western music. The children played and sang the music of several different cultures, nationalities and styles.

Using a standardized spatial reasoning IQ test (Wechsler, 1989), we tested all the children’s spatial skills at the start of the study and again 8 months later. As with our previous preschool studies, the tasks were taken from an age-standardized IQ test, and included one task with six items designed to measure spatial-temporal reasoning (The Object Assembly task), and four tasks of items designed to measure spatial-logical reasoning (Wechsler, 1989). Spatial-temporal operations are responsible for combining separate elements of an object into a single whole, or by arranging objects in a specific spatial order. Their fundamental aspect is the ability to establish spatial-temporal continuity among the elements (Nicolopoulou, 1988). Spatial-temporal operations, then, require successive steps, each step somewhat dependent upon previous ones. The Object Assembly task, designed to measure this ability, thus required the child to assemble cardboard puzzle pieces to create a familiar object, such as a dog or a bouquet of flowers. Spatial-logical operations, in contrast, require recognition of similarities or differences among objects, and is generally a one-step process (ibid.). For example, the child asked to classify objects according to their color or shape would be performing a spatial-logical operation. Based on the Leng and Shaw model and our previous work, we predicted that music training would increase spatial-temporal task scores, but would not affect the children’s scores on the spatial-logical tasks.

Recommendations and Closing Comments

These studies suggests a causal relationship between music and spatial task performance. By demonstrating that music improves the intellectual functioning of all children, we have shown that music education is essential for optimal cognitive development. If we do not provide adequate opportunities for our children to learn and participate in music, we are depriving them of a great resource. School funding for the arts is used primarily to produce performances by talented and interested students for the enjoyment of parents and the community. It is not used to help young people who may not have musical talent reach their full potentials. This a tragedy for both the individual and the nation.

If music is to become a basic part of education, those responsible for our educational systems must become convinced of its educational, as well as its artistic worth. They must be convinced that music is as essential to a satisfactory education as are English, math and science. It is ironic and perhaps unfortunate that we may be forced to resort to science to show the value of music to education. The point must be made that the data from this research in no way takes away from the value of studying music for the beauty and expression it offers in and of itself. This work does not diminish music as an art, but rather it increases the status of music as an educational tool. Music education is essential for all students, not just the gifted and talented, and therefore all educators must understand that providing music education is a fundamental part of their responsibility.

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