Music in your life jazzes up brain cells, researcher says

October 07, 1994|By Bill Hendrick | Bill Hendrick,Cox News Service

Fran Rauscher doesn't touch her cello anymore. It did weird things to her mind.

It transformed her from a child prodigy into a prodigious research scientist who, at 36, is out to convince anyone within earshot of her lilting voice that music is a key to unlocking hidden secrets about the brain.

In short, by studying groups of toddlers and college students, Ms. Rauscher and colleagues at the University of California-Irvine's Center for Neurobiology of Learning have shown that people can enhance some higher brain functions by playing or even just listening to music.

Among her provocative conclusions: Very young children who take music lessons are better at certain tasks than other kids. Music can enhance reasoning abilities at any age.

Complex music, such as a Mozart sonata, stimulates the brain, and simpler types -- such as hard rock -- may get feet moving but not make brain circuits fire faster.

"These findings are very important and have huge implications," Ms. Rauscher says. "We think we have a powerful weapon for educators. Each child could have a chance to reach full potential."

Ms. Rauscher began studying the links between music and the mind after her "first life" as a virtuoso cellist in the late 1970s.

She quit playing as a professional about 12 years ago, in part because, as a perfectionist, she couldn't stand hitting sour notes.

Soon after taking a job entertaining patients in psychiatric wards, she noticed even catatonic patients who never blinked reacted "in a very positive way" to her music. Armed with a bachelor's degree in music, she went to graduate school to study psychology, then earned a Ph.D. and has been doing research ever since, trying to solve mysteries about the brain, how it works and why.

Ms. Rauscher published her first significant findings last year. In a study of 84 college students, she found those who listened to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major for 10 minutes before taking IQ tests scored considerably higher than subjects exposed for the same period to silence or a meditation tape.

Later, a pilot study of 3-year-old children found that those who were given music lessons scored "substantially better" on reasoning tests than other kids. In the latest study, Ms. Rauscher and her colleagues gave half of a group of 3- and 4-year-olds daily group singing lessons, weekly private lessons on electronic keyboards and daily keyboard practice. The other half received no musical training.

"We found a big increase in the kids who'd had lessons, both after four months and after eight months," she says. "This is the first [research] to really show the direct effect of music on this type of brain function."

After just four months, children taking music were scoring "significantly better" on spatial intelligence tests than the others. Spatial intelligence is the ability to perceive the world accurately, to form mental images of physical objects and recognize variations of objects. It's necessary for such higher brain functions as complex mathematics and chess. "[It's] essential for architects, navigators, engineers, graphic designers and /^ astronomers," Ms. Rauscher notes.

Educators are widely cheering Ms. Rauscher's work, contending that it should reverse "the commonly held view of music education as essentially irrelevant to intellectual development."

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