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Piano playing increases math skills, says study

by Deborah Hastings
Reprinted from the Kalamazoo Gazette - 3/15/99

LOS ANGELES - Disadvantaged children at an innter city elementary school significantly increased their math skills through a combination of piano lessons and a special computer program, according to study.

The four-month project was led by University of California at Irvine professor Gordon Shaw, whose previous studies have linked music with above-average skills in spatial concepts found in mathematics, architecture and engineering.

"We concentrated on proportional math such as ratios - at least half the kids don't learn that and when they get to college that's a hang-up in courses such as physics and advanced math," Shaw said Friday.

At the 95th Street school, which ranks 48th on the list of Los Angeles' 100 poorest-performing instutions, 136 children were divided into several groups, some receiving piano and special computer training, and others receiving a mixture of traditional computer and English-language math instruction.

All were second-graders between the ages of 6 and 8.

The special computer program included spatial exercises such as assembling pieces of a puzzle and arranging geometric pieces in particular orders.

Learning piano and how to read music instructed the children to recognize rhythmic values, note values - such as an eighth note is half of a quarter note - and identifying letter names - E, G, B, D, F - from a note's scale placement.

"The learning of music emphasizes thinking in space and time," the study said. "When children learn rhythm, they are learning ratios, fractions, and proportions. ... With the keyboard, students have a clear representation of auditory space."

After testing, the students' results were compared to a 1997 pilot study conducted in Orange County, Calif., where 102 second-graders in below-average schools were given only traditional math and computer teaching.

Los Angeles students scored 27 percent higher than their Orange County counterparts in testing that measured their ability to understand and analyze ratios and fractions - concepts usually not introduced until sixth grade.

Shaw was aided by University of California at Irvine physics professor Amy Raziano and Matthew Peterson of the University of California, Berkeley's Vision Science Department.

The study, published in today's edition of Neurological Research, concluded that piano and computer training did not interfere with regular classroom work.

"In particular," the study said, "children from disadvantaged backgrounds learned these concepts at an earlier age than normally done in the public schools."

Shaw said the trio expects to test its program in six other Southern California schools by the end of this year. The researchers eventually hope to have it implemented in standard public school curriculums.

"That 27 percent increase was just in four months," Shaw said. "Continued music training would continue to boost that".

However, a Dartmough College professor who has studied possible learning benefits from music said he needed to see details of the UC Irvine study before agreeing with the results.

"You have to be careful that the test subjects do not know what the experiment is designed to show," said Jamshed Bharucha, a psychology professor and associate dean at Dartmouth. "A teacher's high expectation of students can lead to those students realizing a higher expectation of themselves."

Another ophychology expert specializing in learning factors, Robert A. Bjork of UCLA, said the improved scores may be related to enhanced self-esteem.

"Students who choose to take piano and music lessons are going to be different than those who do not wish to do so. These students are probably going to be highly motivated," Bjork said. "Thus, the piano training might identify students who are more motivated and organized."