Saturday, December 20, 2008

Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning, October 2008

Sharon Dutton

Forgeard M, Winner E, Norton A, Schlaug G (2008) Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning. PloS ONE 3(10): e3566. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003566

Forgeard et al have presented a summary of significant research studies exploring correlational links between music instruction and other abilities. Research to date has found links between music instruction and closely related abilities, and between music instruction and more distantly related abilities. Longitudinal studies support a causal effect between music instruction and tonal and rhythmic auditory discrimination abilities, between music instruction and drawing melodic contours, and between instrumental training and fine motor skills. Correlational studies support links between music instruction and language skills, although the type of music instruction is not indicated here. An approach through reading and singing, such as Kodaly, may be more likely to effect improved language skills. One study indicates improved phonological awareness after sessions based on singing and rhythm games. Again, no indication as to type of music instruction is indicated; singing and rhythm games form the basis of elementary Orff training. The authors conclude that there is no conclusive causal evidence to support the existence of transfer from music education to language ability, and that studies that explore links between music instruction and mathematical ability, and between music instruction and general IQ are also inconclusive.

The authors present their findings of a research study that investigated a relationship between music instruction and four distantly related areas of cognition: spatial, verbal, nonverbal, and mathematical. Their subjects were instrumental students, and of these there were two types: those who received traditional instruction, meaning learning music through reading notation, and those who received Suzuki instruction, learning music through hearing and copying. The researchers determined the following variables: Socio-Economic Status, duration of training, practice intensity, and handedness. They tested for the following abilities: Gordon’s Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation, Melodic and Rhythmic Discrimination, Motor Learning task, Block Design, Object Assembly, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, Vocabulary, Auditory Analysis, and KeyMath-Revised. Much of the authors’ findings are consistent with previous research, for example, the domain-specific hypothesis. They suggest, “transfer effects may have occurred between music training and a selection of related domains”. They do not commit to agreeing with Schellenberg’s domain-general hypothesis, but rather suggest that further research is needed to verify general transfer based on improved overall intellectual ability.

Because this study is not longitudinal, the authors make note of several possible non-causal explanations for their findings. At present, they are extending this study to a longitudinal study, and these results will rule out these non-causal explanations, and (finally) provide causal evidence either for or against distant transfer effects of music education.

We know intuitively that studying music is good for children. At best, it allows them to access, develop and express their artistic sensibilities; it seems to increase their attention span and develop discipline; and at worst, it helps them learn other subjects. Ever since Rauscher et al published their so-called “Mozart Effect” study in 1993, educators and neuroscientists have attempted but have been predominantly unsuccessful in replicating the effect. Although we suspect that studying music does develop our ability to understand other disciplines such as mathematics and reading comprehension, as of yet, no one has been able to “prove” it quantitatively, and unequivocally. Forgeard et al recognize the inherent faults of the previous studies, and are attempting to produce a longitudinal study which will provide quantitative evidence that music instruction either does, or does not transfer to other cognitive domains such as language, mathematical, or kinaesthetic skills and understanding.

The authors recognize the difference between reading based approaches to music education such as Kodaly, and listening based approaches, such as Suzuki. I suspect that they will likely determine that different music education “methods” will produce different kinds of transfer. I can think of four common methods in North America, each approaching music education through a different emphasis; Kodaly through singing and reading, Orff through rhythm and instrumental improvisation, Suzuki through listening, and Dalcroze through movement. Many more approaches exist elsewhere. Hopefully, as the saga continues, we will eventually know if the different approaches transfer to other domains, and how they each enhance (or don’t enhance) our capacity to understand and perform in different cognitive and kinaesthetic realms.

I refer again to Eric Barnhill’s “Cognitive Eurhythmics”, and to his video. That children would learn to read better because of Dalcroze Eurythmics training does not at first appear to be a consequence of near transfer. However, when you consider that meaningful speech depends upon intricate learned rhythmic utterances, the transfer is not that distant. Furthermore, Barnhill theorizes that when students are actively engaged in a Dalcroze exercise, the oscillating wave rhythms of their brain’s activities synchronize into a sort of controlled harmony, and this “binding” is what enables the brain to synthesize a multi-sensory experience into one perception. There is no perception without rhythmic movement, however subtle or indirect. This rhythmic movement experience is crucial for binding the rhythms of the brain, and this binding effect is in turn crucial for enabling us to form integrated perceptions of our surroundings, and to organize our thoughts in general. In this sense, transfer is a gross understatement. Music is fundamentally crucial for the synthesis of stimuli, and for the organization of thoughts.

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