The nineties have been the decade for widespread news about the affects of music on the brain. Everyone seems to be asking about the “Mozart Effect”, specifically what it is and how to use it to their child’s benefit. It is certainly an exciting time to be a music educator and a parent. We are finally able to look at documented research that shows that music is integral to a child’s growth, and use this information to help our children achieve their full potential. What more do we want as parents than to give our children all of the tools necessary to become happy, well-adjusted, intelligent human beings?
Unfortunately, like most popular theories, the “Mozart Effect” has become watered down in an effort by some people to make more money at the expense of the general public. You can go into any bookstore nowadays and buy “Mozart Effect” books, videos, tapes, and even bumper stickers.
In researching this article I did just that at several local music stores, as well as on the internet. I looked first in the music section, and when I didn’t find any books on the subject, wandered over to the children’s section with my 2 year old daughter. Again, aside from a mixed assortment of compact discs with music for children’s brains, I found nothing of real value for research. Curious, I went to the information counter where I was told that the “Mozart Effect” books, written by Don Campell, were to be found in the “alternative medicine” section! And, they were all sold out. That gave me my first clue that something very interesting was happening on this subject. I decided to research further in the library and on the internet.
The term “Mozart Effect” has come to simplify (by Don Campbell et al) a large body of research by neuro-scientists and experimental psychiatrists showing a definitive link between music study and improved spatial intelligence. This is nothing to be taken lightly. Children are born with over 100 billion unconnected or loosely connected nerve cells called neurons. Every experience that child has will strengthen or even create links between neurons. Those pathways that remain unused will, after some time, die. Because neural connections are responsible for every kind of intelligence, a child’s brain will develop to its full potential only through exposure to enriching experiences. It is important then, to identify the kinds of enrichment that forges the links between neurons.
Music has been clearly proven to improve neurological connections responsible for spatial intelligence. Spatial intelligence is necessary for a person to be able to see patterns in space and time. It is the ability to perceive the visual world accurately and to form mental images of physical objects. This kind of intelligence is used for higher brain functions such as music, complex math, solving puzzles, reasoning, and chess. Music specialists for years have noted that their musically-trained and involved students tend to be at the top of their class, often outscoring their non-musical classmates in mathematical tasks. Until recently, however, there was no way to clearly prove it.
Definitive studies have been done since the early 1980’s when Dr. Gordon Shaw and colleagues presented the trion model of the brain’s neuronal structure to the National Academy of Sciences. By 1990 the team had shown through computer experiments that trion firing patterns produce viable music, when these patterns are mapped onto musical pitches. This study was important in that it suggested that this musical model could be used to examine creativity in higher cognitive functions, such as mathematics and chess, which are similar to music. By 1991, Shaw proposed that music could be considered a “pre-language” and that early childhood music training exercises the brain for some higher cognitive structures.