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Musical exposure improves other parts of life

Guest column, by Meadow DeVor and Ann Pelletier

When it comes to mathematics

I got static in the attic.

-Joni Mitchell

Kids of America, good news: fish is not the only brain food out there. Music lessons boost brain power as well.

Ten years ago, Nature magazine published a groundbreaking study that found college students who listened to a Mozart sonata had higher spatial IQ scores than their peers who did not listen to the sonata prior to test-taking. The Mozart Effect – as the media dubbed it – had every parent-to-be piping music into the womb.

While time will tell whether such a practice can produce progeny ready-made for Harvard, studies continue to show that music lessons enhance school performance.

Learning music at an early age can spur the development of neural connections that help us to think in pictures. We apply this type of thinking – spatial-temporal reasoning – to complex mathematic and scientific problems.

Children who receive keyboard instruction have been shown to demonstrate a better understanding of fractions and proportional reasoning. It’s easier for them to determine, say, whether one-quarter or three-eighths is the bigger slice of pie – not an easy concept to get across through traditional teaching methods. (Answer: three-eighths.)

You may be wondering whether socio-economic status has something to do with the better math scores. Maybe it’s not the music lessons per se, but something to do with the fact that kids with music lessons often come from better financial circumstances than kids without.

More than one study took this question into account. The results? In one research project, second graders from inner city Los Angeles who were given keyboard lessons for a year had better math scores than children from the more well-to-do Orange County who had no music lessons. In fact, the L.A. kids scored on par with Orange County fourth graders.

The music-math link bodes well for the likes of future engineers, computer programmers and chess champions. But music lessons appear to enhance verbal skills as well.

In a recent study reported by Jennifer Warner for WebMD Medical News, “students with music training learned, recalled and retained more words” than their peers who did not have music education. Another study found that children who learn to read music have an easier time learning to read books.

Put the math and verbal benefits together and it’s no surprise that students involved in music score higher on both portions of the dreaded SATs than students with no music class work or playing experience. And SATs aside, kids who study music tend to have higher grade point averages than kids who don’t.

Does it all boil down to the brain and grades? Despite a decade of music lessons, some of us – or at least one of us – can still choose a piece of pie faster by the eenie-meenie-miney-moe method than by applying spatial-temporal reasoning. But if in some cases music does not a stellar scholar make, so what? It’s hard to go wrong with a song in the heart.

Meadow DeVor is director of Tahoe Conservatory of Music. She can be reached at meadow@tahoeconservatory.com.

Ann Pelletier is a writer and student of music. She can be reached at lilychipmunk@hotmail.com.


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