Mother of the ‘Mozart Effect’ lays myth to rest - UW Oshkosh Today
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The headline of a parenting blog makes the provocative proclamation: “Learning musical instrument might boost a child’s IQ.”

The article explains how the reasoning skills of students who received weekly piano lessons were 34 percent higher than those who received computer training, referencing the results of a study just recently published in the journal Neurological Research.

In this case, “just recently” means the late 1990s.

And the article’s conclusion that music training could impact every kind of intelligence? A leap in logic at the very least, according to Frances Rauscher, a psychology professor who co-conducted the aforementioned — and often misunderstood study — at the University of California, Irvine, before joining the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh faculty in 1995.

The Mozart Effect strikes again.

Misperceptions about Rauscher’s research have been cropping up from the beginning.

In 1993, Nature, a prominent British scientific journal, published the results of a study conducted by Rauscher and two colleagues, which showed that a group of research participants who listened to a sonata by Mozart performed better on spatial tasks than after listening to spoken relaxation instructions or silence for the same period.

The effect lasted all of 10 minutes, and the study had nothing to do with children.

Nonetheless, many people heard only what they wanted to hear in the Associated Press story that soon was printed around the world. Almost overnight, an industry aimed at making embryos, infants and children smarter via classical music was born. Perhaps the best-known examples are the Baby Einstein line of DVDs, which includes “Baby Beethoven,” “Baby Bach” and, yes, “Baby Mozart.”

“We were stunned,” Rauscher said. “It was a very brief scientific paper, and we had no idea it would get that amount of attention.”

Demystifying the Mozart Effect

In conjunction with their first study, which focused on testing a previously established neural model of brain functions, Rauscher and her colleagues then set out to see how music instruction (rather than listening to music) might impact young students’ spatial reasoning.

“The brain is so plastic, especially in young children. Many of the connections between neurons form after birth, as a function of learning or experience. We thought that musical experiences might strengthen the connections that are common to both music cognition and spatial cognition — sort of like exercising a muscle,” Rauscher said.

Over the past 15 years, Rauscher has led a number of studies to analyze how music lessons affect students’ cognition, including the previously mentioned five-year experiment that compared the results of 3- to 4-year-olds who took keyboard lessons to those who received computer lessons and those who received no extra training at all.

Later studies with Head Start children included percussion lessons and voice lessons in addition to the keyboard instruction.

“We predicted that different types of music instruction would affect cognition in different ways,” Rauscher said. “For instance, we thought that students who studied rhythm instruments would do better in math and spatial reasoning because rhythm is simply dividing up beats per measure.”

That hypothesis was supported; however, the theory that singers would score higher on visualization tasks was not supported, though those students also performed better on spatial-temporal tasks than those without any musical instruction at all.

The results of any one of those studies also have been referred to as the Mozart Effect.

“The term ‘Mozart Effect’ is now used to describe any study with music and learning. The term is meaningless,” said Rauscher, who keeps a plush magnet of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the file cabinet in her office — a gag gift from a graduate student.

Above all, Rauscher stresses that the experiments are effective only under three conditions: The instruction must occurs before age 6 or 7 and continue for at least two years, and it must be high-quality instruction.

The value of music education

Rauscher continues to research the effect of musical instruction in children, and she is heartened by her findings.

“Even two years after the music instruction ended, the Head Start children who received music instruction achieved the same scores as middle-income kids on spatial-temporal and arithmetic tasks, but the disadvantaged students who weren’t in the Head Start experiments scored significantly lower.

“It tells us two things: Music made a difference for those kids, and so did Head Start,” she said.

A former concert cellist, Rauscher is passionate about the importance of music education, and she understands why so many people would want to use her research to justify the existence of music programs in an era of tight budgets.

“I attend many conferences about music cognition throughout Europe, which has a rich musical tradition, but they are facing the same challenges as the U.S. Perhaps Austria, Mozart’s birthplace, has it the worst,” she said.

Given the rate at which music programs are getting cut around the world, why wouldn’t teachers point to Rauscher’s most recent study that shows how 4-to-5-year-old students who take violin lessons for 40 minutes twice a week have an easier time learning to read?

However, Rauscher warns that such arguments are a slippery slope.

“We can’t include music in the curriculum solely for its extra-music benefits,” said Rauscher, who co-authored the book “Neurosciences in Music Pedagogy” in 2008.

“The lifelong learning you get from playing an instrument, the enjoyment from playing and listening to music — that’s why it should be included in the curriculum. Music is valuable for its own sake,” she said.