ERIC Identifier: ED480540
Publication Date: 09/2003
Author: Frances H. Rauscher
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting
Can Music Instruction Affect Children's Cognitive Development?
Several studies have examined the effects of music instruction on children's
abilities in other disciplines. Other studies have explored the effects
of listening to music on adults' spatial abilities. Findings from these
two sets of studies have been confused, leading to claims that listening
to music can improve children's academic abilities. This Digest evaluates
these claims and discusses the evidence exploring music instruction's effects
on children's spatial-temporal, mathematical, and reading abilities.
The "Mozart Effect": Listening to Music
The term "Mozart Effect" refers to the finding that 36 college students
who listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata scored higher on a subsequent
spatial-temporal task than after they listened to relaxation instructions
or silence. The effect lasted approximately 10 minutes (Rauscher, Shaw,
& Ky, 1993). Although the effect was replicated by several researchers,
other researchers were unable to reproduce it (Hetland, 2000a). Research
on the causes and limitations of the effect in adults is ongoing (Husain
et al., 2002).
The Mozart Effect was studied only in adults, lasted only a few minutes,
and was found only for spatial-temporal reasoning. Nevertheless, the finding
has spawned a Mozart Effect industry that includes books, CDs, and Internet
sites claiming that listening to classical music can make children "smarter."
In fact, no scientific evidence supports the claim that listening to music
improves children's intelligence. Two related studies tested the Mozart
Effect with 103 children ages 11 to 13 years (McKelvie & Low, 2002).
The researchers found no experimental support for the effect in children,
concluding that "it is questionable as to whether any practical application
will come from it" (p. 241). Although the Mozart Effect is of scientific
interest, its educational implications appear to be limited.
Music Instruction and Spatial-Temporal Ability
A meta-analysis of 15 studies involving 701 children ages 3 to 12 years
suggests that children provided with music instruction score higher than
controls on spatial-temporal tasks (Hetland, 2000b). Spatial reasoning
is important to many fields and to core concepts in mathematics, such as
proportions and fractions. Effects of keyboard instruction have been found
for children ranging in age from 3 to 9 years, with the largest effects
found for the youngest children (Bilhartz, Bruhn, & Olson, 2000; Costa-Giomi,
1999; Gromko & Poorman, 1998; Rauscher et al., 1997; Rauscher &
Zupan, 2000). Although most studies have employed keyboard instruction,
a recent study examined the effect of keyboard, singing, and rhythm instruction
separately on the spatial perception of 123 economically disadvantaged
3- and 4-year-old children (Rauscher & LeMieux, 2003). The three music
groups scored higher on spatial tasks following music instruction than
did a control group, with the rhythm group scoring higher than all other
groups on sequencing and arithmetic tasks. Verbal, matching, and memory
tasks were not significantly affected, demonstrating the specificity of
the effect to tasks requiring spatial abilities. This finding suggests
that different types of music instruction affect different aspects of cognition.
There has been some question as to the durability of cognitive enhancements
found for children who receive music instruction. One study found that
9-year-old children who were provided with piano instruction indeed scored
higher than controls on a spatial-temporal task immediately following the
instruction. However, no differences between the music and control groups
were found after two years of instruction (Costa-Giomi, 1999). A follow-up
study revealed that participants who began music instruction before age
5 scored significantly higher on spatial tasks than those who began later
or did not receive instruction (Costa-Giomi, 2000). This study did not
address the possibility that other non-musical factors, such as musical
aptitude, parental involvement, or socioeconomic factors may have affected
the outcome. The author concluded that children who begin music instruction
very early in life are likely to show the greatest benefits in spatial
development. Supporting this conclusion are studies that explored the effect
of classroom keyboard instruction (Rauscher & Zupan, 2000; Rauscher,
2002). Children who began instruction at age 5 scored higher on spatial-temporal
tasks than children who did not receive the instruction. The scores of
children who began instruction after age 7 did not differ from controls.
Finally, a recent study found that children who received keyboard instruction
for two years beginning at age 3 (n = 31) continued to score higher on
spatial-temporal and arithmetic tasks two years after the instruction was
terminated (Rauscher & LeMieux, 2003). The age at which children begin
instruction appears to affect the duration of extra-musical cognitive outcomes,
and longitudinal research suggests that at least two years of music instruction
are required for sustained enhancement of spatial abilities (Rauscher,
Music Instruction and Mathematics
Some studies have found that music instruction can also affect certain
mathematical abilities. Researchers compared the proportional reasoning
scores of several groups of children (n = 136, ages 7 to 9 years), including
one group who received computer-generated spatial-temporal training alone
and another group who received the same spatial-temporal training coupled
with piano keyboard instruction (Graziano, Peterson, & Shaw, 1999).
The proportional reasoning of the children was then tested. Although both
groups scored higher than a control group, the group that included piano
training scored significantly higher than the group that did not.
A more recent study found that at-risk children who received two years
of individual keyboard instruction scored higher on a standardized arithmetic
test than children in control groups, including a group that received computer
instruction to rule out a possible Hawthorn effect (Rauscher & LeMieux,
2003). Children who received singing instruction also scored higher than
controls. Children who received instruction on rhythm instruments performed
best on a mathematical reasoning task.
A meta-analysis combining six experimental studies provides tentative
support for the notion that music training affects mathematical achievement
(Vaughn, 2000). However, six is a very small number, and more research
is clearly needed. Several correlational studies do, however, suggest a
relationship. For example, one study involving 96 children, ages 5-7 years,
found that those who received 7 months of supplementary music and visual
arts classes achieved higher standardized mathematics scores than children
who received the schools' typical music and arts training (Gardiner et
al., 1996). Unfortunately, random assignment was not possible due to logistics
and the school administrators' need to keep classes intact. Furthermore,
the music instruction was provided in conjunction with arts training, making
it impossible to determine if the effects found were due to music instruction
or arts training.
Music Instruction and Reading
A meta-analysis of a set of 24 correlational studies, some involving
sample sizes of over 500,000 high school students, found a strong and reliable
association between music instruction and reading test scores (Butzlaff,
2000). A more recent study found that ninety 6- to 15-year-old boys with
music training had significantly better verbal memory than children without
such training (Ho, Cheung, & Chan, 2003). The longer the training,
the better the verbal memory. These studies provide some support for a
correlation between music instruction and verbal abilities.
However, a meta-analysis conducted on six experimental studies provided
little evidence of a causal relationship (Butzlaff, 2000). The effect sizes
were highly variable, indicating that the overall finding is not stable.
Therefore, it is unwise to conclude that music affects reading ability
based on this analysis.
Experimental research performed with 8- to 11-year-old children with
reading problems found that the reading skills of children who received
music instruction (n = 6) were significantly higher than those of children
who did not receive the instruction (n = 6) (Douglas & Willatts, 1994).
However, a study of nine dyslexic boys with a mean age of 8.8 years found
that music instruction improved rapid temporal processing skills, phonological
skills, and spelling skills, but not reading skills (Overy, 2002). Overall,
the studies suggest that it is premature to conclude that music instruction
affects reading ability.
The research suggests that music may act as a catalyst for cognitive
abilities in other disciplines, and the relationship between music and
spatial-temporal reasoning is particularly compelling. However, several
concerns remain unaddressed. Little is known regarding the exact aspects
of music instruction that contribute to the transfer effects. Also, further
longitudinal studies are needed to determine the duration of these effects.
Another concern is that currently available tests of reading and math achievement
may not be sufficiently sensitive to the complexity of language and mathematical
learning potentially affected by music instruction. Although it appears
that parents, educators, and policy makers can now consider enhanced spatial-temporal
ability to be a viable outcome of music instruction, the evidence supporting
enhanced mathematical or reading ability is equivocal. Finally, although
the research has strong implications for policy and practice, care must
be taken to ensure that scientific goals do not displace developmentally
appropriate music instruction (see, e.g., Music Educators National Conference
For More Information
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