Music as Muscle-Builder for the Brain

Scientists have found new evidence for the so-called "Mozart effect"--the phenomenon that music can enhance some mathematical abilities. The results appear in the current issue of Neurological Research.

In earlier studies, Gordon Shaw and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, showed that listening to a Mozart two-piano sonata briefly improved the spatial skills of college students. Later, they found that piano lessons achieved a longer term effect, lasting at least several days, on the spatial skills of preschoolers. In the new study, Shaw compared two groups of Los Angeles second-graders: 26 got piano instruction plus a new math video game, which trains players in skills such as mental rotation of shapes and spatial exercises that teach ratios and fractions. Another 29 got computer-based English training plus the video game, and a control group of 28 got no special training. After 4 months, the results were "dramatic," the authors report. The piano group scored 15% higher than the English group in a test of what they had learned in the computer game--and 27% higher on the questions devoted to fractions and proportional math. These gains were on top of the finding that the computer game alone boosted scores by 36% over the control group.

Shaw, a physicist by training, says the improvements are in keeping with the theory that the spatial awareness and the need to think several steps ahead that are required in keyboard lessons "enhance"--or reinforce--latent neuronal patterns. "Music is just tapping into this internal neural structure that we're born with," he says.

Michael Merzenich, a neuroanatomist at the University of California, San Francisco, says Shaw's findings are in line with existing evidence that "you can modify [cortical activity] as a function of practice." Nonetheless, he agrees with Shaw that music (at least Mozart) appears to serve as nonspecific conditioning in spatial reasoning for the brain--much as muscle-building is a general conditioner for an athlete. Music may be a "skill ... more fundamental than language" for refining the ability of the brain to make spatial and temporal distinctions, says Merzenich.

Shaw's work has already inspired a following among day-care facilities in several states that are now supplying music and drumming for their charges. Although there's no scientific proof that just listening to classical music improves brain development, it's good for the music business, says Merzenich: "They're selling a lot of Mozart CDs to parents."