This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 1996 issue of Early Childhood News. The actual article was in color and included illustrations.

The Power of Music
by Frances Rauscher, Ph.D.

Since the beginning of time, music has been praised by history's greatest human minds. Alexander Pope said, "Music resembles poetry; in each are numerous graces which no methods teach, and which a master hand alone can reach."  The Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle stated, "The meaning of song goes deep. Who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us?"; Shakespeare, Beethoven, Goethe, Plato, Luther, and Einstein, among others, echo these sentiments.

Yet, as a subject in American schools, music is rarely regarded with such esteem. For more than ten years, music programs have been systematically cut or reduced in many U.S. school districts. The rationale given by legislators and school administrators has been starkly pragmatic: In order to revive lapsed academic standards and maintain America’s ability to compete globally in business and technology, school curricula must focus on the “basics” of reading, writing, math, and the sciences. Their argument continues that music is a nice activity for children to learn, but, with the tightening of school budget belts, is also expendable. 

This trend has continued despite the highly publicized research I spearheaded at the University of California, Irvine, which proved that music plays a crucial role in early childhood development. With the assistance of Gordon Shaw, Ph.D., also of the University of California, Irvine, our team was able to determine unequivocally that music lessons improve a child’s performance in school.

In 1993, we completed a pilot study in which ten three-year-old children were given music training--either singing or keyboard lessons. The scores of every child improved significantly (46 percent) on the Object Assembly Task, a section of the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence-Revised (WPPSI-R) that measures spatial reasoning. In a second experiment, we found that the spatial reasoning performance of preschool children who received eight months of music lessons far exceeded that of a demographically comparable group of preschool children who did not receive music lessons.

The link between music and spatial reasoning is significant since spatial reasoning skills are part of the abstract reasoning skills that the brain uses to perform both common, everyday activities--such as walking--and complex functions such as solving problems in mathematics and engineering.

Our research also indicates that music training may most benefit those children for whom maximizing academic and career potential is critically important: the disadvantaged. In our pilot study with preschool children, those from disadvantaged backgrounds displayed a particularly dramatic improvement in spatial reasoning ability after music training.

Unlike many traditional teaching methods, music is nonverbal and does not force children to struggle with language or cultural differences. Music programs in schools can help disadvantaged children to learn on much more equal footing with children from more affluent backgrounds. And unlike children from higher-income families who have access to private music lessons, for many of these disadvantaged children, their only opportunity for music instruction is in the school.

In another ongoing study which we have called the “Mozart Effect,” Gordon Shaw, Ph.D., and I concluded that compared to those who simply sat in silence or listened to realization instruction, 36 college students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K-448 subsequently experienced a significant increase in their spatial IQ scores. This study reiterated our conclusion that the relationship between music and spatial reasoning is so strong that simply listening to music can make a difference.

We have now confirmed what teachers have long suspected: Music does more than entertain our children, it also shapes their minds. In fact, Newsweek magazine’s February 19th cover story, “How Kids Are Wired for Music, Math, and Emotion,” highlighted our studies, proclaiming on their own “if more administrators were tuned into brain would be a daily requirement.”

In light of these findings, eliminating music programs is not acceptable. We believe that our studies, and future work inspired by them, have the potential to revitalize the role of music in education. Rather than be neglected, music should be prized and emphasized as an invaluable way to boost human brain power.

Frances Rauscher, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at the University of Wisconsin--Oshkosh.