Can Music Instruction Affect Children's Cognitive Development?

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jan 26, 2011

Several studies have examined the effects of music instruction on children's abilities in other disciplines. Other studies have explored the effects of listening to music on adults' spatial abilities. Findings from these two sets of studies have been confused, leading to claims that listening to music can improve children's academic abilities. This Digest evaluates these claims and discusses the evidence exploring music instruction's effects on children's spatial-temporal, mathematical, and reading abilities.

The "Mozart Effect": Listening to Music

The term "Mozart Effect" refers to the finding that 36 college students who listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata scored higher on a subsequent spatial-temporal task than after they listened to relaxation instructions or silence. The effect lasted approximately 10 minutes (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993). Although the effect was replicated by several researchers, other researchers were unable to reproduce it (Hetland, 2000a). Research on the causes and limitations of the effect in adults is ongoing (Husain et al., 2002).

The Mozart Effect was studied only in adults, lasted only a few minutes, and was found only for spatial-temporal reasoning. Nevertheless, the finding has spawned a Mozart Effect industry that includes books, CDs, and Internet sites claiming that listening to classical music can make children "smarter." In fact, no scientific evidence supports the claim that listening to music improves children's intelligence. Two related studies tested the Mozart Effect with 103 children ages 11 to 13 years (McKelvie & Low, 2002). The researchers found no experimental support for the effect in children, concluding that "it is questionable as to whether any practical application will come from it" (p. 241). Although the Mozart Effect is of scientific interest, its educational implications appear to be limited.

Music Instruction and Spatial-Temporal Ability

A meta-analysis of 15 studies involving 701 children ages 3 to 12 years suggests that children provided with music instruction score higher than controls on spatial-temporal tasks (Hetland, 2000b). Spatial reasoning is important to many fields and to core concepts in mathematics, such as proportions and fractions. Effects of keyboard instruction have been found for children ranging in age from 3 to 9 years, with the largest effects found for the youngest children (Bilhartz, Bruhn, & Olson, 2000; Costa-Giomi, 1999; Gromko & Poorman, 1998; Rauscher et al., 1997; Rauscher & Zupan, 2000). Although most studies have employed keyboard instruction, a recent study examined the effect of keyboard, singing, and rhythm instruction separately on the spatial perception of 123 economically disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-old children (Rauscher & LeMieux, 2003). The three music groups scored higher on spatial tasks following music instruction than did a control group, with the rhythm group scoring higher than all other groups on sequencing and arithmetic tasks. Verbal, matching, and memory tasks were not significantly affected, demonstrating the specificity of the effect to tasks requiring spatial abilities. This finding suggests that different types of music instruction affect different aspects of cognition.†

There has been some question as to the durability of cognitive enhancements found for children who receive music instruction. One study found that 9-year-old children who were provided with piano instruction indeed scored higher than controls on a spatial-temporal task immediately following the instruction. However, no differences between the music and control groups were found after two years of instruction (Costa-Giomi, 1999). A follow-up study revealed that participants who began music instruction before age 5 scored significantly higher on spatial tasks than those who began later or did not receive instruction (Costa-Giomi, 2000). This study did not address the possibility that other non-musical factors, such as musical aptitude, parental involvement, or socioeconomic factors may have affected the outcome. The author concluded that children who begin music instruction very early in life are likely to show the greatest benefits in spatial development. Supporting this conclusion are studies that explored the effect of classroom keyboard instruction (Rauscher & Zupan, 2000; Rauscher, 2002). Children who began instruction at age 5 scored higher on spatial-temporal tasks than children who did not receive the instruction. The scores of children who began instruction after age 7 did not differ from controls. Finally, a recent study found that children who received keyboard instruction for two years beginning at age 3 (n = 31) continued to score higher on spatial-temporal and arithmetic tasks two years after the instruction was terminated (Rauscher & LeMieux, 2003). The age at which children begin instruction appears to affect the duration of extra-musical cognitive outcomes, and longitudinal research suggests that at least two years of music instruction are required for sustained enhancement of spatial abilities (Rauscher, 2002).†

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