playing-pianoWe’ve seen no small amount of hoopla over the suggestion, first made in the journal Nature in 1993, that listening to Mozart might improve spatial-temporal reasoning abilities. This news set off a series of events that might best be described as a sort of hysteria. What came to be known as the Mozart Effect was received by many as the miraculous make-you-smarter drug we were all waiting for, and parents everywhere promptly stampeded music stores to stock up on the master composer. The state of Florida went so far as to legislate that daycare facilities play Mozart each day. And Governor Zell Miller of Georgia mandated that every new mother was to take home a copy of Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major,” convincing a major record company to cover the cost.

And to be fair, whether it makes kids smarter or not, a little classical music is probably not going to do any harm.

But in the nearly eight years since Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher, researchers at UC-Irvine, sprung the Mozart Effect on the world, much has happened in the field of music and brain research. For one, scientists have come out of the woodwork to either discount or corroborate the Mozart Effect. One researcher has even reported that listening to New Age composer Yanni improves cognitive skills.

But the Yanni Effect, thankfully, hasn’t caught on yet—presumably for good reason. And no matter: other things of even more interest have been brewing.

“The region of the cortex responsible for analyzing pitch was found to be 25 percent larger in musicians.”

Tickle the Ivories; Expand Your Brain
Thomas Elbert, and a team of psychologists at the University of Konstanz in Konstanz, Germany, presented research in the journal Science in 1995 claiming the motor cortices responsible for small motor movement in the left hand of string instrument players were, according to fMRI studies, much larger than normal. They noted that the amount of cortical reorganization correlated with “the age at which the person had begun to play,” and that these results suggested a similar phenomenon for other parts of the body.

“The primary somatosensory cortex of humans,” they write, “depends on use and changes to conform to current needs and experiences of the individual.”

Then, in 1998, research conducted in Munster, Germany, at the Institute of Experimental Audiology, strengthened this idea. A team led by C. Pantev said in Nature that the region of the cortex responsible for analyzing pitch was found to be 25 percent larger in musicians, and again, this increased size correlated to the age at which the musician began playing.

Around this same time, a number of researchers began to note that while the Mozart Effect was interesting, its payoff was fleeting: it does not last more than an hour. The real news in all this, they proposed, might actually be that playing an instrument (as opposed to listening to music) is the thing that really catapults one’s intellect.

An exploration of this idea then led to an inquiry into which instrument might provide the strongest cognitive returns. And the runaway winner of this search has been the piano.

But why the piano? Why not the sonorous guitar? Or the piccolo? Why not the French horn? It does seem strange that one instrument would have a quantifiably higher impact.

But an ever-growing body of research seems to support the idea. In a 1997 article in Neurological Research, Rauscher, Shaw and a number of their colleagues tested the keyboard against the computer for improvement in spatial-temporal ability. Using three groups—one receiving private keyboard and singing lessons, one receiving private computer lessons, and one receiving no training at all—the team found that those receiving music lessons indeed scored 34 percent higher on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability. These skills figure heavily in activities like mathematics, science, engineering, and playing chess.

“It is becoming more and more clear how important all the arts are in brain development.”

Instrumental Improvement
A 1999 study conducted at Columbia County Schools in Harlem, Georgia, confirmed these results.

Joyce M. Cheek and Lyle R. Smith polled eighth grade musicians on their musical history—whether they’d had individual instruction, group instruction, and what instrument they played. The researchers then compared this data to scores on the Iowa Basic Test, and standardized skills test, and found that those students who had experienced individual instruction showed better results than those who had had group instruction. Furthermore, they found that those who played the keyboard—as opposed to singing, horns, drums, and a number of other instruments—had the best scores of all.

Most researchers are at somewhat of a loss to explain the phenomenon. Dr. Lyle Smith says bluntly, “I just don’t know how to explain it. It’s really puzzled me why the keyboard over other instruments.”

Cheek, a math teacher at Harlem High School, says that this research does not necessarily suggest to her a panacea for our math and science woes, though it is hopeful nonetheless. “While giving every child keyboard lessons isn’t going to fix all our problems,” she says, “it is becoming more and more clear how important all the arts are in brain development. Since we know now there is a link between the arts and math and science, we need to consider these things in future curriculum development.”

Rauscher, now at the University of Wisconsin, Osh Kosh, whose forthcoming article in Early Childhood Research Quarterly documents this phenomenon in kindergartners, is of the opinion that it’s merely the incidental design of the instrument that accounts for the differences. She believes that a student can achieve the same things on another instrument. To her mind, musical literacy is the most important thing in improving cognitive abilities; it’s just that the piano makes that literacy more accessible. “It’s likely because the keyboard lays it out visually,” she says. “Learning on the piano may just be a more direct route to this literacy.”

Cheek, Joyce M.; Smith, Lyle R. “Music Training and Mathematics Achievement,” Adolescence. Winter 1999, 34(136): 759-61.

Graziano, AB; Peterson, M; Shaw, GL. Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training,” Neurological Research. March 1999; 21(2): 139-52.

Pantev, C, et al. “Increased auditory cortical representation in musicians,” Nature. April 23, 1998; 392(6678): 811-4.

Rauscher, FH, et al. “Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning,” Neurological Research. February, 1997; 19(1): 2-8.