What's New in Pedagogy Research
Johnson, Rebecca Grooms, American Music Teacher
Does music make you smarter? The influence of music study and music listening on cognition and learning continues to be a hot research topic. One sometimes takes these projects with a grain of salt; however, a study titled The Effect of Piano Lessons on the Vocabulary and Verbal Sequencing Skills of Primary Grade Students (1) appears to have successfully controlled the variables of demographics, native intelligence, parental support and other factors that can indirectly affect the findings of this type of research.
Several research studies have suggested that music and literacy are parallel systems in a number of ways: both written text and notation must be decoded for meaning, both are read from left to right and top to bottom, and the oral components of inflection and fluency have similarities to musical phrasing and performance. Recent studies of the brain have indicated that the processing networks for music and language may overlap.
The Method: The participants in this study attended two large public elementary schools in New York City. School A offered music lessons to all students as part of the standard curriculum, the control School B did not. Both schools were in the same geographic area and had similar demographics (although the control School B had a slightly higher median income). The students were assigned to the two schools according to the placement of their homes rather than the parents choosing the school. The children tested in this study were entering the second grade. None of the students in School A had been tested for music proficiency, general intelligence or academic achievement before their participation in the music program, and all were entering their third year of piano lessons. The children tested in School B had received no previous musical training or classes in music. Both schools followed standard comprehensive literacy programs that integrated the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.
All the children in the study (45 in School A and 57 in School B) were pretested with two subsets of a standardized testing instrument. The first tested general vocabulary and the second verbal sequencing--the ability "to understand order and pattern of extended verbal information and to interpret shapes having equivalent meanings." (2) They were tested again at the end of the 10-month school year. During the year, the students in School A received two 40- to 45-minute group piano lessons each week. The lessons were based on the materials from the "Music and the Brain" project curriculum and consisted of four elements: musical concepts, musical warm up, music practice and music creativity. The lessons were given as part of the school day, not after school or during "free" time.
The results: The post-tests revealed that the control group (School B) had nearly static vocabulary mean scores (15.82 in the pretest to 16.12), while in the experimental group (School A) mean scores rose significantly from 15.67 to 18.28. The scores for verbal sequencing actually dropped for the control group--from 10.26 to 8.84, while the scores for the experimental group rose significantly from 10.89 to 13.28. The authors wrote:
Because of the cognitive complexity of this type of complementary, multi-layered combination of music and literacy instruction, an opportunity may have occurred for children to experience some neurological enhancement, an outcome replicated in other associated empirical studies. …