Giving piano lessons to preschoolers significantly increases their ability to perform the types of reasoning required for excellence in science and math, researchers at UC Irvine and the University of Wisconsin have found.
Surprisingly, lessons on using a computer keyboard provided no similar benefit, the team reports today in the journal Neurological Research.
The study involved 78 children in preschools in Santa Ana, Long Beach and West Covina, and the team found that the beneficial effect was independent of socioeconomic class and parental interest.
An earlier study by the same team found that listening to Mozart improved performance on an IQ test taken immediately afterward, but that effect faded within an hour.
In this case, the researchers believe the improvements in mental ability will persist, perhaps for a lifetime, although they do not have data to prove that.
Although the research was conducted with preschoolers, the scientists involved say that older children, perhaps up to the age of 12, could benefit. The researchers also believe that the effect they discovered is related to playing instruments in general, rather than being limited solely to keyboards.
"These children have plastic [malleable] brains that are just forming connections," said psychologist Frances H. Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin. "We're influencing pattern development in the cortex through neural training."
The great improvement shown by the children as a result of the musical training "should be of great interest to scientists and educators," said physicist Gordon L. Shaw of UC Irvine, who is also on the staff of UC Irvine's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.
A growing body of data indicates that the richness of a child's experiences during the first years of life shapes his or her intelligence later on. Developmental biologists now know that infants are born with large numbers of excess brain cells that are only loosely connected together into the neural networks that provide thought, creativity and intelligence. Each experience, such as being read to, playing with a brightly colored toy or listening to music, strengthens the connections between frequently used brain cells, even as those that are unused are winnowed away.
Rats and mice raised with toys and other forms of stimulation are more intelligent and creative than those raised in the absence of such a mental playground. The same is true for humans, virtually all scientists now agree.
But no one had previously associated a specific stimulus with improvements in specific abilities. The new study is apparently the first to do so.
The team recruited 111 3- and 4-year-olds at three preschools. One was an inner-city school for single mothers who had gone back to community college, while the other two served middle-class families. Thirty-three of the children withdrew from the schools during the study and were not included in the analysis.
The children were randomly divided into four groups. One group received daily singing lessons and two 15-minute private piano lessons per week at school. A piano was also made available if the children wished to practice on their own. A second group received only the group singing lessons. Members of the third group received two 15-minute private computer lessons each week, while those in the fourth group received no lessons at all.
At the beginning of the study, each student received four tests of mental ability, including one that measures spatial-temporal reasoning. In the spatial test, students might be shown a picture of a camel broken into four pieces and be asked to reassemble it. They might also be shown a simple geometric figure and be asked to match it with one of a group of similar figures.
At the beginning of the study, all of the students scored at the national norm on the tests.
At the end of six months, those who received piano lessons scored an average of 34% higher on the tests of spatial-temporal ability, while those in the other three groups showed no improvement on any of the tests. Because the children later enrolled in public schools, the team was unable to follow up to determine how long the effect persisted.
Rauscher, who studied piano and the cello as a child, thinks that the lessons were beneficial because "music is one of the few art forms that occurs over time. It requires mental imagery, transforming mental images and being able to reason in sequence. It seems as if music and science share some things in common."
The team chose the piano "because it is one of the easiest to start children on," she said. "You can see a direct linear relationship between the keyboard and the musical scale. That's not true with stringed instruments, for example."
Nonetheless, she believes similar benefits would be achieved with other instruments as well.
The research was sponsored by grants from, among others, the National Piano Foundation and the National Assn. of Music Merchants. The results were reviewed by other scientists before publication.