by Cynthia M. Allegrezza
from Today's Parent of Massachusetts, September 1999
Is it possible to jump-start your baby's mental development simply by listening to Mozart? It appears so, according to some experts. Dubbed "The Mozart Effect," the composer's classical works are specifically suited to stimulate the mind and facilitate learning among the younger set.
So impressed by this Mozart Effect is Georgia's Governor Zell Miller that he included a $105,000 line item in his budget that would provide a tape or compact disc copy of the classical recording Build Your Baby's Brain Through the Power of Music to every Georgia newborn.
Interest in music and brain development is not new. Research into this link between these two rather diverse areas began in the mid-1980s. Neurobiologists pinpointed the areas responsible for math and music abilities close together in the brain's cortex. Development in this area, the researchers claimed, helps with complex functions like math or logic.
In one study, children who received keyboard training were compared to their musically untrained peers (including computer-trained children). According to psychologist Frances Rauscher, Ph.D., and physicist Gordon Shaw, Ph.D., of the University of California at Irvine, after eight months of keyboard lessons, preschoolers showed a 46% boost in their spatial IQ, which is crucial for higher brain functions, such as mathematics. Children who received singing or computer lessons, or no lessons, did not improve significantly on spatial-recognition tasks.
Young adults were also tested. Mozart's "Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major" was found to significantly increase spatial scores of college students on IQ tests when the Sonata was listened to, concluded Rauscher and Shaw in 1993.
While the Rauscher and Shaw research indicates that music helps development in the right side of the brain, German researchers concluded that the left side benefits as well. The College Board states in the "1995 Profiles of SAT and Achievement Test Takers" that students with course work or experience in music performance scored 51 points higher on the verbal portion of the SAT and 39 points higher on the math portion.
Mozart's music may warm up the brain, Shaw suggests. "We suspect the complex music facilitates certain neuronal patterns involved in high brain activities like math and chess," he points out.
According to Don Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect, "the music of Mozart invariably calms listeners, improves spatial perception and allows them to express themselves more clearly, communicating with both heart and mind. Clearly, the rhythms, melodies and high frequencies of Mozart's music stimulate and charge the creative and motivational regions of the brain."
Perhaps the key to Mozart's greatness, Campbell says, "is that it all sounds so pure and simple." Furthermore, listening to Mozart's music while studying can enhance one's ability to memorize spellings, poetry, and other languages, he adds.
Although most experts say simply exposing your child to Mozart or Frank Sinatra or even Eric Clapton won't necessarily turn them into scientists or surgeons, educators and child development professionals do not discount music's ability to tap into the mind's reservoir of creativity and intelligence. As a result of the Rauscher and Shaw research findings, several public schools throughout the U.S., including Massachusetts, have begun to include Mozart as background music in their classes.
What is it then about music that seems to jump-start our brains, especially when it comes to math-related subjects? Experts say that maybe it is because music never stands still. Whether you are playing an instrument or listening to the radio, you are constantly being challenged to process and make sense of the tune and rhythm.
"In music, you must carry out whatever you do in real time," explains music instructor Martin Gardiner, who is also a research fellow at Brown Univeristy's Center for the Study of Human Development. "The music moves ahead and you can't just sit there. You have to be organized and operate very efficiently."
A study by Gardiner and his colleagues in two elementary schools demonstrated that first-graders who received an extra hour per week of music and visual arts training in the classroom showed improved reading skills and were significantly ahead in math skills compared to other students of the same age.
"It is no surprise that students exposed to music fared better in math, since similar skills are used on both subjects," Gardiner maintains. "The process is called 'cross-fertilization,' when the brain is able to take what is learned from one skill, in this case music, and apply it to other skills, such as math and reading. There is less overlapping of music and reading skills at a young age, which probably accounts for the slighter improvement in reading skills found in the study," he says. However, Gardiner believes that there is more cross-fertilization at higher levels of reading.
Parents should not procrastinate in introducing their children to music - the earlier the better, experts claim. If parents wait until after the third, fourth, or even the fifth grade and have not established that connection, it can be challenging, they warn, as children have usually found other interests and hobbies to fill their time.
Tracey Berthiaume of Worcester, a music teacher and mother of three children from ages two to seven, makes music an integral part of her family's life. "Two of my children began playing instruments before they were five," she says. "We always have some kind of music playing in the house. It's an extremely musical place to live."
Berthiaume believes that music not only stimulates a child's sense of hearing but also their visual sense and motor skills. "Music is a wonderful way to help children learn," she adds, as she sings to her two-year-old son.
"It's important that families try to incorporate music in their everyday lives, even an activity as simple as singing together in the car," says Patty Lee Book, a music instructor with Kindermusik. Children gravitate naturally to music, finding joy in even the simplest of lullabies, she says. "It is through this joy that children can foster a lifelong appreciation for music," Book adds.
At home, parents can encourage their children musically by making homemade instruments, listening to music together, and attending musical events as a family, she offers. "Give children musical toys such as triangles, tambourines, or maracas," Book suggests. "Encourage them to tap out different rhythms on a drum, a bowl, or even a pot."
Whether it's Mozart, the Beatles, Mancini, or the Backstreet Boys, music has been proven to stimulate young minds and enhance the education of children by helping them to make important intellectual connections.
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