Music's Contribution To Early Iq Becoming More Certain

April 22, 1997|By Judy Foreman | Judy Foreman,BOSTON GLOBE

Is there really a connection between the magic of music and the way the brain develops? There appears to be, says a growing chorus of neuroscientists and psychologists.

Music, of course, should be enjoyed for its own sake, not for whatever it may do for brain cells. But there is compelling evidence that making and listening to music, starting as early as possible, may also build brain power.

Some researchers now speculate that early exposure to music may help preserve some of the millions of brain cells a baby is born with that might be lost if they are not used.

"Music is as much a part of the human condition as language -- we are born with the machinery to make and appreciate it," says Dr. Mark Tramo, a Harvard Medical School neuroscientist. "It's all there. All we have to do is turn it on."

By the time a baby is born, the cochlea, part of the inner ear, is already equipped with a rubber-band-like membrane that can vibrate in response to sound waves.

Sound waves, which consist of air molecules vibrating at different frequencies, are created all the time -- whenever a car screeches, a steak sizzles or a violinist plays an "A." The amazing thing, says Tramo, is that specific nerve cells respond to specific frequencies.

"The miracle is that the physics of the sound vibration and the physiology of the ear and brain match so well. We're born ready to hear -- and love -- music," he says.

Babies as young as 4 months old appear already capable of understanding musical structure, according to a series of ingenious experiments by psychologist Carol Krumhansl of Cornell University and others.

In a typical experiment, the baby is placed in a dark room. When a light goes on, the baby turns her head toward it. As soon as she does, music comes on and stays on until she turns her head away.

Babies quickly learn, says Krumhansl, that the music plays only when they are looking at the light. Once the infants make the connection, the researchers play minuets by Mozart. Sometimes, they are played just as Mozart wrote them. Other times, they are played with long pauses between notes, a disruption that "sounds terrible" to adults, Krumhansl laughs.

The babies think so, too. When Mozart is played right, babies look at the light for long periods. When the musical structure is broken up, they look away. Stanford researchers have documented the same effect with Bartok and Bach.

"Babies are born with a sense of music," Krumhansl says, adding that studies suggest that even young babies know a cadence -- a set of chord patterns that often signals the end of a piece -- when they hear one. And they prefer consonant music, with its pleasant-sounding chords, to dissonance, which often sounds harsh or out of tune.

Specific music training

Furthermore, it is becoming clear that specific types of music training can enhance certain intellectual skills, say Frances H. Rauscher, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, and Gordon Shaw, a physicist at the University of California at Irvine.

In their latest study, published in February, Rauscher, Shaw and their team took 78 three- and four-year-olds from working-class families and divided them into four groups. One group had six months of private piano lessons; another got computer lessons, a third, singing lessons and the fourth, no training. Unlike the kids who learned piano, Rauscher notes, those given singing lessons were taught little about musical concepts.

By the end of the study, the piano students scored 34 percent higher than the others on a test of spatial-temporal reasoning -- putting a puzzle together to gauge their ability to process information in sequence and space.

"It's a very definite, causal thing," says Shaw. "You use large parts of the brain when you're doing anything at a high level, like processing music."

Rauscher and Shaw also documented the "Mozart effect" in college students. Several years ago, they found that just listening to the complexities of Mozart's piano sonatas increased scores on temporal-spatial reasoning tests, while listening to relaxation tapes or music by Philip Glass, which is more hypnotic, did not.

But in the college-age kids, the "Mozart effect" lasted only about 15 minutes, notes Rauscher, while the brain-boosting effect of piano lessons for little kids seems to last at least a week.

The Mozart effect fits with other data showing that older kids who've studied music -- or the arts in general -- score higher than average on both the verbal and math parts of the SATs, according to the College Board, sponsor of the tests.

There is also growing evidence of a "critical period" -- roughly the first seven years of life -- during which music training is most likely to help brain development, says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

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