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Trying to Tune Up Budding Intellects

EDUCATION / SMART RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS AND PARENTS

There's no evidence that it works, but parents enroll infants in music classes, hoping the result will be smarter children. Some of the pupils are as young as 7 months.

January 24, 2001|ERIKA HAYASAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most are too young to walk, but they dance the waltz.

And their tiny fingers can barely grasp a tambourine or plink the keys of an organ, but they play anyway.

They are students in Ann Pittel's Thursday morning music class at the Cornerstone Music Conservatory in Santa Monica. And they're all 7 to 20 months old.

Pittel's is one of half a dozen music classes in the Los Angeles area that aim to improve babies' rhythmic pulse, musical expression, pitch development and mental awareness.

Parents who believe that exposing children to music early will improve their musical expression, and overall intelligence later, line up to enroll their little ones. Other music schools also report growing interest.

"They say it stimulates their brain," said Michelle Fermstein, mother of a 15-month-old, referring to several magazine articles she had read that linked music to childhood development.

Although some studies have linked intelligence with music in those 3 and older, some researchers admit that there has been too much hype and misinterpretation surrounding the issue. In fact, there has been no evidence linking music to infants' intellectual development.

Still, many parents enroll their babies in music classes and buy music videos and CDs in hopes that exposure will make the children smarter.

Even Pittel, who has taught infant music classes for more than 20 years, said the issue has been exploited.

"Yes, kids should listen to classical music, but they could listen to Beethoven, Gershwin--even Eminem," she added with a laugh. "I think kids benefit from listening to lots of sounds."

UC Irvine professor Gordon Shaw, well known for his study of the "Mozart effect," has researched the connection between mathematical reasoning and music in children.

His research has linked music with improved spatial reasoning in 3-year-old children. Spatial reasoning is the ability to form mental images, recognize different objects and perceive how the world fits together.

Shaw's research has also found that college students who listened to Mozart performed better on intelligence tests, though the "Mozart effect" lasts only a few minutes to one day.

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Shaw says simply making children listen to music won't increase their intelligence. The goal of his most recent project is to prove that teaching music and math in a long-term, combined curriculum is the key to helping children understand math. That, of course, wouldn't work with babies.

"I would say that if a parent wants to play some Mozart for their baby, I think they will quickly see the baby may be enjoying it and calming down," Shaw said. "But there's no scientific evidence that it's going to make their kids smarter."

For older students, however, Shaw has launched a project in 12 schools throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties. The project, which focuses on second-graders, combines piano keyboard training with a math video game. And it has shown that math skills improve, he said.

But Kenneth Steele, a professor of psychology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, believes there is very little validity to any theories that music influences children's intelligence.

Steele attempted to re-create Shaw's "Mozart effect" findings in 1997 and found no evidence that music had any effect on a child's spatial reasoning. He dismissed the idea that infants' intelligence would be enhanced by music.

"We're talking about children who are the offspring of middle-class parents," he said. "For most kids like that, they are getting a wide range of stimulation as it is. So the addition of these music classes is not going to add much."

Even if evidence is not there, parents and researchers say musical environments can't hurt.

On a recent morning in the baby music class, Pittel sits with her back straight and shoulders swaying from side to side as she plays the piano.

Eight mothers and nannies march around in a circle, each holding a baby in one arm and shaking a tambourine with the other hand. They move from one musical exercise to another.

Some babies smile, giggle and bob their heads. Some look uninterested. One cries.

Then each adult sits in front of an organ, all with the babies in their laps, helping them drum the keys with their tiny fingers.

Next, they pick the babies up and move to the floor, where they dance the waltz and the tango.

"When you dance, the babies are feeling your resonated body, so try to make nice big dips and sways," Pittel tells the adults.

She always sings her directions because she believes children remember words more easily through music.

"It's like the ABCs," she said.

Parents say it's priceless to see a child's face light up when the music starts, or to watch a baby dance spontaneously or mimic the pitch of a teacher's piano note.

Holly Middlekauff has had two children in the class. Now her kids, a 21-month-old and a 4-year-old, attend classes for older children. On this day, Middlekauff, a cardiologist, is taking time off from her busy job to accompany her younger child.

"I hear how it's good for the child's brain development," Middlekauff said. "But it also allows me to spend some time with her."

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Middlekauff said she has seen evidence that her 4-year-old son has benefited from the classes. Now, with his voice or on the piano, he can recognize, read and match any note Pittel plays, she said, adding that he is advanced for his age group.

"This is the only boy in the class who started so young, and it's like a second language for him," she said.

Pittel said the early music classes must have improved his familiarity with music.

Steele said that, as long as parents are spending their own money to enhance their children's musical experiences, there's no harm in it.

"Just don't play it too loud," he said.

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