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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing music at age 5, and even if he was a prodigy, that biographical tidbit encapsulates the main point about music and how it affects children's abilities.

Scientific research has found some basis for the notion that music instruction stimulates general intelligence. About 10 years ago that was called the Mozart effect, the result of some research that reported that listening to a Mozart sonata increased the ability of some college students on a test of mental ability. Popular wisdom twisted that into the notion that listening to music makes you smarter, which is more magic than science. What scientists say at the moment is that music instruction will make you smarter about music, and that for music to help children they need to begin instruction really, really early.

Early lessons

At the DeKoven Center in Racine, that's when they start. On a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago, Melissa Huck was kneeling on the floor of the room for Kindermusik of Racine.

"I have two hands, and they love to play," she said, half speaking and half singing, to the group of 2-year-olds. She moved her hands and wiggled her fingers, and some of the children followed her example. Parents or grandparents sat with the children and helped them along.

In quick sessions during the 45-minute class, the children played with bells, heard a story, and danced and moved to various types of music. Some of the kids sort of grasped the concept of shaking bells and tapping sticks in time with the rhythm.

Huck alternated the activities' pacing. Fast followed slow, which followed fast, "because if you do too many fast things in a row, they get wound up," she said.

Kindermusik is an early childhood program that introduces children as young as 1 to music, with the intent of stimulating a variety of abilities. Older children, Huck said, are introduced to the glockenspiel — a set of metal bars that are played with a pair of hammers — the dulcimer, and reading music. If they finish the full program at age 7, they're ready for piano lessons.

That's only the music piece, however.

"I've actually seen academic achievement in their early grade-school years. I do believe that Kindermusik contributes to that," said Amy Bartholf, 36, director and owner of Kindermusik of Racine.

"I do believe in the whole music and math relationship."

Doing music, even at the age of 2 or 3 using bells or rhythm sticks, means counting, she said. There are quarter notes and sixteenth notes. "A lot of music is subdividing, and it's fractions." Her own two children do well in school, she said, and she believes their linguistic abilities developed at an earlier age than usual.

The language connection

For the parents who have brought their kids to the Kindermusik program at DeKoven, scholastic achievement is only part of the attraction.

Jamie Wadlington, 28, of Racine, enrolled her son, Jaylen, who is almost 2. "It gives him a chance to get out and interact with other kids, and learn to appreciate music, hopefully stimulate the brain…."

"Yes education is very important to me, so anything that keeps him active and keeps him involved in things, I'm all for it."

Mark Bollendorf, 42, of Racine, said the program helps his daughters with coordination and movement, with social skills, and it's some one-on-one time with your child, he said.

Vivienne Clyne, 34, of Kenosha, picked the program for son Ian "because I wanted him to have the music appreciation, and I know it starts really, really young." He practices some of the movements he has learned in class, she said. "He's started to sing. … It helps the language development."

Lynda BarNoy, 40 and from Mount Pleasant, has a background as a pediatric occupational therapist and enrolled her daughter, Anastasia, in Kindermusik because she was adopted from Russia at the age of 1 and of course had already started to absorb her native language. "Rhythm that you experience … gives you a very strong foundation for language development."

More than music

"What we know so far is that music instruction has much longer-term benefits than listening to music," said Frances Rauscher, 48, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Rauscher is one of the people who presented the first evidence on the Mozart effect.

Rauscher did one study involving young children and rhythm instruction. "I found that after two years of instruction they scored significantly higher than children who received instruction in other things."

In doing math, especially something like geometry, she said, you depend on the same types of skills used in music — the ability to count out intervals over time and to move your hand in a certain space. Rauscher, who trained as a musician herself, said she thinks about a piece of music as a set of intervals spread out in time. "It's a similar experience when I'm trying to solve a complex mathematical problem. I can see it."

But to realize these benefits children have to start instruction before the age of 6 or 7 and must have lessons for a couple of years at least, she said. That's because the effects music seems to produce depend on the "plasticity" of the human brain. Plasticity, of which scientists are taking increasing notice, refers to the brain's ability to change its circuitry at early ages.

"You're still forming a lot of neural connections until you're 6 or 7," Rauscher said. After that, the brain starts pruning, strengthening some connections and eliminating others. By about age 11, your brain wiring is largely set, she said. Still to develop is the frontal cortex, which governs decision making but is mainly concerned with impulse control. That doesn't stabilize until the early 20s, she said. (This explains teenagers.)

Music is important in other creatures, too.

"I can even see it in my baby bird," Rauscher said.

African gray parrots are very good at mimicking human song, she said, and have vocabularies of up to 2,000 words. They can use those words in context, too. Lay out five blue blocks and five red blocks, and the bird can tell you which blocks are blue and how many there are, Rauscher said.

Words don't stimulate him, she said. "I mean I can talk to him all I want, and he‘s still young so he's not talking yet. But as soon as I sing his attention is totally riveted. He comes forward, and he starts making little baby sounds."

"I wouldn't advise parents to give music lessons to their children just for these extra musical benefits," Rauscher said.

Music exposure is very important to simply teach children about music, wrote Jenny Saffran, an associate professor of psychology at UW-Madison. Her comments came in an e-mail from Montreal, where she is on sabbatical.

"Even very young infants prefer to listen to music over most (if not all) other stimuli; it's very engaging, and carries a lot of information about emotion. We also know that even very young infants can learn a lot about how music works just by hearing it. So listening to music is a greatly important thing to do — not because it makes you smarter per se (as claimed by proponents of the Mozart effect), but because humans love music."

Testing Mozart

What does research tell us about how music affects children's overall intelligence?

We have some hints. Some researchers have published papers saying that the effect of listening to music is not due to the music itself but to the mood it creates. A study published in Psychological Science in 2001, for example, found that people who listened to an energetic Mozart piece did better on a test of spatial abilities than people who listened to nothing, but the people who listened to a slow, sad piece of classical music by Albinoni did worse than people who listened to nothing.

So if you're an adult, don't count on a piece of music to work magic on your brain. But children can realize a very definite, broad benefit from music instruction.

One of the same people who did the 2001 study published another last year in which he compared four groups of children assigned to either music lessons or voice lessons, or to drama lessons or no lessons. The children in the music groups showed small but significant increases in overall IQ on all subtests and a general measure of academic achievement.

An MRI study reported in 2001 found that Mozart, compared to a piece by Beethoven and some 1930s piano music, produced greater blood flow in regions of the brain thought to be important for spatial reasoning. But, the researcher wrote, this was not a definitive test of the Mozart effect.

In a poster prepared for a conference, Frances Rauscher, one of the researchers whose work gave rise to the idea of a Mozart effect, noted that the effect is present in some form. Two independent reviews of research concluded that it has been repeated 29 times in 13 laboratories, she wrote. There have been other failures, but in some cases these may have been the result of the tests that researchers used and even their expectations.

Rauscher said she hears a lot from teachers who play Mozart to their students in the hopes their test scores will improve. "And for a lot of students it's not going to work simply because Mozart is weird to them. They're not used to it. They don't like it, and so nobody performs well under stress."

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