Math Whizzes Do Excel At Music, but Is Link Merely a Coincidence?

by Sharon Begley

After Heather Wood had been playing the harp for only two years, she was good enough for the principal harpist of the New Mexico Symphony to agree to give her lessons.

By yesterday evening she had made it to performance nirvana: New York’s Carnegie Hall. Ms. Wood, who just finished her freshman year at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., and three other students enchanted an invitation-only audience with a program that ranged from Fauré’s “Elegie” to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

But what got the students to Carnegie Hall was less their way with keys and strings than their brilliance with genomes and fractals. The four are recent winners of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in science and math. When officials at the Siemens Foundation, Iselin, N.J., systematically asked entrants about their music background, says Executive Vice President Herb Carter, “we were shocked” that nearly three-quarters were gifted musicians. Last night’s recital, arranged by Siemens, was the result.

There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that some of the most brilliant scientists and mathematicians are gifted musicians. Einstein, for example, played the violin. (The reverse relationship doesn’t hold, though: Few musicians can compute a Hamiltonian matrix or explain the Krebs cycle.) The link makes intuitive sense. Heather, who plans to double major in music and math, says the two “use the same kind of logic. Music is made up of numbers and patterns, and pattern recognition is one of the skills I developed in math.”

Dig deeper, though, and things get trickier. True, several studies find that, on intelligence and achievement tests, people with musical training outscore those without. In 2001, for instance, the College Board reported that music students scored 41 points higher on the math part of the SAT.

But so what? Playing in the school orchestra takes dedication, focus and a good memory — all of which help in other intellectual pursuits. In fact, music students outscored the others on the verbal SAT, too, casting doubt on any special connection between music and math. And besides, parents who encourage their kids to take piano or violin lessons are the very ones likely to read to them, get involved in their schoolwork and otherwise push them to excel.

To remove the doting-parent factor, scientists run studies in which some kids are randomly assigned to, say, keyboard instruction, while others just get lots of attention (to be sure that’s not the causative factor). Here, the verdict is mixed. In the Montreal Piano Project, half the children received piano lessons for three years, and half did not. After the first two years, the piano group outscored the others on a test of spatial abilities, Eugenia Costa-Giomi of the University of Texas, Austin, reports. Spatial reasoning, which lets you read blueprints or figure out how a folded-and-cut piece of paper will look unfolded, underlies some mathematical reasoning.

Since awareness of the spatial relationship between keys, fingers and musical notation is crucial to playing the piano, it’s not out of the question that the lessons might reinforce brain circuits for spatial thinking in geometry, physics or chemistry. But after the third year, the two groups were even in their spatial skills.

A paper scheduled for the August issue of Psychological Science will report that, in the largest-ever study of this kind, the IQ of children randomly assigned to piano lessons for 36 weeks rose about six points. That of children assigned to drama lessons, serving as a control group, rose five points. Hardly a big difference, and no word yet on whether the benefit even endures.

The evidence that nonmusic academic skills are helped by learning music is pretty weak," says Robert Cutietta, dean of the music school at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “And there is little if any evidence that music increases real math skills.”

And yet … the belief in a connection between music and math/science won’t go away. The best thinking is that, if music fosters anything, it is most likely mathematical reasoning, not science generally, since that ranges from the most abstruse number theory to butterfly classification. “The closer you get to abstract sciences such as mathematical physics, the stronger the commonalities in thinking,” says chemist Olaf Wiest of Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind.

Psychologist Randall Engle of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta is generally skeptical of a music-science connection, but suspects that “at the highest levels of music theory there are thought patterns and abstractions that overlap with higher-level mathematical thinking.”

Indeed, studies of patients with brain injuries suggest that a single region in the left hemisphere gives rise to the “sequential analytic processing” that underlies both algebraic reasoning and reading music, says neuroscientist Mark Jude Tramo, director of Harvard’s Institute for Music&Brain Science. He suspects there is “a fair amount of overlap” between the brain circuitry for music and that for math.

Even if music lessons can’t bring out the math genius in ordinary mortals, the remarkable number of brilliant mathematicians who are also accomplished musicians suggests that a gift for math also makes you a natural in music. No one said life is fair.

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