1) Is there a “Mozart Effect”?
Yes. The Mozart Effect refers to brief enhanced performance on spatial-temporal tasks (such as solving puzzles or working out proportions) following 10 minutes of exposure to Mozart’s "Sonata For Two Pianos, K 448." Although the effect is “real,” it is not clear what actually causes it. Current data suggest that any music or auditory event that is arousing will produce the effect. This ability is important for solving multi-step problems, such as those tackled by architects, engineers, physicists, mathematicians, and artists. Spatial-temporal reasoning is also important for music cognition. In order to see cognitive improvement through music instruction, the instruction should begin before age six or seven, continue for at least two years, and it must be high quality instruction.
2) What happens to rats who listen to music?
Rats that were exposed to Mozart for 12 hours a day for 60 days completed a maze faster and with fewer errors than rats that were exposed to Philip Glass, white noise, or silence. There is some evidence that this is due to synaptic plasticity in the rat hippocampus incurred by exposure to Mozart.
Synaptic plasticity is one of the most important processes involved in learning and memory. It refers to the strengthening of the space (synapses) between neurons as a function of use or disuse. Everytime someone learns something, there is a physiological change in the brain. The more a neural pathway is used, the stronger the connection between those neurons involved becomes (this is why practice makes perfect.)
Babies are born with almost all the neurons they will have throughout their lifetimes, but many of the connections between neurons (the neural pathways) form after birth as a function of experience. Neural connections that are not used die out. The hippocampus, which is largely responsible for spatial learning and memory, is one of the most plastic areas of the brain.
3) Can music make you smarter?
This is an overgeneralization. Our data suggest that students who learn to play a musical instrument (rather than those who just listen to music) perform better on spatial-temporal and phonemic awareness tasks than children who are involved in other activities, such as swimming or computer lessons.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to discriminate speech sounds, a.k.a. “phonemes.” Phonemes are the smallest speech sounds that carry meaning. Breaking words down into their separate speech sounds (phonemes) requires phonemic awareness. For example, a person who can break down the word "stop" into its four separate phonemes (s-t-o-p) is showing phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness correlates strongly with pitch discrimination and reading acquisition.
Other researchers’ data suggest that overall intelligence may be affected by music instruction as well, although the data from my lab show effects only for spatial-temporal and early reading abilities. Mathematical ability may also be improved through music instruction, although not all studies are consistent.
4) Do different instruments – or different types of music – affect cognitive functions differently?
There is very little data on this, because most of the studies have used keyboard instruction. Our research shows that instruction in voice, rhythm instruments, and keyboard improves spatial-temporal reasoning. Also, children provided with instruction in rhythm instruments scored higher on numeracy tasks than those provided with voice or keyboard instruction. Finally, we have recently found that children provided with violin instruction score higher on phonemic awareness tasks (required for learning to read) than those provided with swimming lessons.
5) Should music be taught in schools?
Yes, music should be taught in schools - for its musical benefits. If one wishes to enhance spatial or mathematical abilities, there are likely more direct ways to do so.
Frances Rauscher is a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh. She documented the "Mozart Effect" in 1993, along with colleagues Gordon Shaw and Katherine Ky.
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