The Effects of Music Instruction on Learning in the Montessori Classroom

By Harris, Maureen

The value of music in educating the young child is not being recognized, particularly in the area of mathematics. Despite the amount of literature available regarding the effects of music instruction on academic achievement, little has been written on different Montessori music pedagogies and their effects on students’ math scores. If research of students in the school system indicates that learning through the arts can benefit the “whole” child (Upitis & Smithrim, 2001); that math achievement scores are significantly higher for those students studying music (Rauscher & Shaw, 1998); and that Montessori education produces a more academically accomplished child (Clifford & Takacs, 1991); then what is the potential for the child when Montessori includes an enriched music curriculum? Education Today and Tomorrow

At the outset of the 21st century, many educators and parents are considering the kind of education young people need to become responsible and productive members of a global society. Major changes globally are making it increasingly difficult to prepare our students to be responsible citizens of the future. Recognizing that schooling should enhance the development of creative and responsible citizens, we need to consider how such development takes place and provide rich opportunities for learning for all students (Landsberg, 1997; Eisler, 2000). In response to this crisis in education, studies have been conducted to assess the importance of arts in education (Dewey, 1934; Eisner, 1994; Gardner, 1983; Greene, 1995). The research evidence clearly states the benefits of learning through the arts (Dewey, 1934; Gardner, 1973; Upitis & Smithrim, 2001).

Music and Brain Development

The role music plays in the education of the child is the focus of much discussion in education today. The baby at play is sculpting a brain that will be used for the rest of his or her life (Olsho, 1984). Research results indicate that the learning and remembering of a melody can occur not only before birth, but actually before or at the beginning of the third trimester (Hepper, 1991). The first 3 years in a child’s life is a period when music can be used to stimulate the development of nerve connections between brain cells necessary for optimal cognitive development (Hodges, 2000), and the natural beneficial outcomes of the effects of music on brain development are evident in the area of academics (Catterall, 1998). Music has been a mainstay of early childhood education for more than a century, as songs became part of the daily routine; children clearly find pleasure in singing such favorites as “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” among others.

Music and Math

While studying higher brain function, Rauscher and Shaw (1997) found a connection linking music lessons to improved spatial- temporal reasoning abilities in 4- to 6-year-olds. Professor Larry Morton duplicated the Mozart Effect study (Shaw, 1993), substituting the music of Pink Floyd for Mozart’s piano sonata, and found similar results (Morton, Kershner & Siegel, 1990). While music is viewed as a separate intelligence, there is a high correlation between mathematics and music (Yoon, 2000), and it is more than a coincidence that math and music are noted for their crossover talents. Music involves ratios, regularity, and patterns, all of which parallel mathematical concepts (Gardiner, Fox, Knowles & Jeffrey, 1996). For example, the musical scale is similar to a neat logarithmic progression of frequencies. There are also similar connections between patterns of notes and patterns of numbers (Marsh, 1999). Reading music requires an understanding of ratios and proportions. Arithmetic progressions in music correspond to geometric progressions in mathematics (Hiebert, 1999). Music enables students to learn multiplication tables and math formulas more easily (T. Mickela as cited in Kelstrom, 1998); rhythm students learn the concept of fractions more easily; students who were taught using rhythm notation scored 100 percent higher on tests of fractions; and a child may use the ability for logical thinking that was developed in music class to solve problems quite unrelated to music (Kelstrom, 1998). Thus, it is clear that music has a profound influence upon the academic life of a child and deserves equal status within the curriculum (Sloboda, 2001). The core question now becomes: Is the ability to learn enhanced when music, rhythm, and movement are added and the child is engaged?

Engagement and Learning Through the Arts

Engagement means that children are wholly involved: physically, emotionally, intellectually, and socially. In 1999, the Royal Conservatory of Music commissioned a 3-year study on the effects of “Learning Through the Arts” for participants in schools at the fol- lowing six Canadian sites: Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Windsor, Cape Breton, and Western Newfoundland. Interviews and surveys with students, parents, teachers, artists, and princi- pals from Learning Through the Arts schools all talked about how the arts seem to engage children in learning (Upitis & Smithrim, 2001). Artsvision (a U.S. organization involved in inno- vative education projects) recommended the arts as a means of engaging the student and teaching across the cur- riculum. Science class taught through music! Picture it: The class is gathered at one end of the gym, the children are walking around in a tight little cluster, beating time to a deliberate drumbeat. Suddenly, the beat quickens and the children begin to spread out across the gym. What are they studying? Energy transfer! Next, the students are water molecules being heated by a uranium bundle in a nuclear power plant. (When water is heated, each molecule moves more quickly and further apart from the others, a change in movement that was signaled by the drum.) Later in the lesson, the children shuffle along the floor, representing electrons moving along power lines. Then they pretend to be atoms joining together and breaking apart, chanting a rap about the pros and cons of various energy sources, all of this to musical accompaniment (Hoffman, 2003).

There is no doubt that beating drums and acting like molecules in the gym is much more fun than sitting in class, but do these activities really improve student achievement? Researchers have found, time and again, an apparent link between the arts (music, most commonly) and positive effects on reading, math, writing, self- esteem, and brain development. Work in the arts requires that children learn how to pay attention to relationships, and so many of the decisions that are made in life are decisions that involve relationships, and which cannot be made by appealing to formulas, recipes, or algorithms. The tools the workforce of tomorrow will need are creative thinking, problem solving, risk-taking, teamwork, and communication, and these are precisely the skills the arts teach (Milley, Bucher, Oderlund & Mortatotti, 1983).

Life Without Music

One study of 500,000 students in 45 countries has shown that the United States is below average in mathematics (Grandin, Peterson & Shaw, 1998). A study titled “Musical Training Improves a Child’s Ability in SpatialTemporal Reasoning, Which Is Important in Mathematics and Science Education” (Grandin et al, 1998) suggests music education should be present in schools, preferably starting in preschool, to develop “hardware” for spatial-temporal reasoning in the child’s brain. The crucial role of spatialtemporal reasoning in learning difficult math and science concepts must be explored and exploited. Dr. Jean Houston of the Foundation for Mind Research says that children without access to an arts program are actually damaging their brains. They are not being engaged in nonverbal modalities that help them learn skills like reading, writing, and math (Roehmann & Wilson, 1988). While school boards debate the role of music in the school curriculum, researchers have discovered a way to make kids smarter. Savvy parents are signing their children up for private music lessons (Schmidt, 1998).

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori built on the work of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin to develop a childcentered approach to education that became known as the Montessori Method. The innovations Montessori brought to early childhood education include the belief that each child develops from within as an individual and that the child must be free to select and use materials with a minimum of adult interference for as long as desired. Montessori invented self- correcting materials that developed the senses, language, intellect, and muscles, and promoted the use of sensory materials to build the foundation for reading, writing, and arithmetic. She encouraged the use of child-size materials, furniture, tables, and chairs. Montessori advocated a change in the role of the teacher from a shaper of behavior to an observer of child-directed activities in an unhurried environment suited to the needs of the child. Elements of the Montessori Method and adaptations of Montessori materials are used widely today in early childhood programs throughout the world. Montessori provided insight into and respect for the ways in which young children learn.

An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child’s energies and mental capacities, and leads him to self-mastery. (Montessori, 1995, p. 207) As soon as children find something that interests them they lose their instability and learn to concentrate. (Montessori, 1966, p. 148)

Montessori felt that young children learn by doing and by being engaged, and that they become self-disciplined by concentrating on purposeful activities. The Montessori materials accommodate children of different age levels with various levels of ability. The younger children emulate the older ones and, thus, are stimulated to work with more challenging activities. Ideally, children attend a program for 3 years. It is in the third year of the Montessori preschool that we can see perfection of all the skills and new knowledge that has been learned from the indirect preparation of the first 2 years. A visionary whose innovative ideas were unconventional for her time, Maria Montessori would no doubt embrace learning through the arts in the classroom. Keep in mind that the goal in early childhood education is to cultivate the child’s own natural desire to learn. The enthusiasm displayed and the eagerness to sing and move with the beat reflects a child’s natural propensity toward music (Kolb, 1996).

With an increased awareness of how the use of multiple intelligences helps the learner understand, it is important to note that children retain 24 percent of what they hear, 40 percent of what they see, and 70 percent of what they learn through multisensory experiences (Collett, 1991). Thus, it makes sense to implement as many strategies as possible to reach a student. The benefits of music have been well documented, and the most recent research, indicating that “Music lessons cause a faster rise in children’s IQ,” reveals that music lessons taught individually or in a small group may provide an additional boost in IQ because these lessons are like school but still enjoyable. Moreover, music lessons involve a multiplicity of experiences that could generate improvement in a wide range of activities (Schellenberg, 2004).

Montessori Students and Academic Growth

The primary responsibility of schools undertaking comprehensive school reform is creating programs that result in improved student achievement (Angrist, 2004). One of the most important tasks in this process is choosing highly effective reform strategies, methods, and programs that are grounded in scientifically based research (Boehnlein, 1998). Montessori programs have grown considerably over the past 20 years and with growth have come concerns about outcomes, especially academic ones. Many Montessori schools show evidence of high achievement levels, and such results, though impressive, can be difficult to interpret for a variety of reasons, including higher socioeco- nomic backgrounds, parental influ- ence, etc. Positive results in favor of Montessori are useless if the research does not adhere to accepted professional standards. In Boehnlein’s 1987 review of the literature of a total of 84 studies on the Montessori method (1998), it was evident that in some of the stud- ies the researcher was not a trained Montessorian. The researchers did not understand the integrated curriculum model in Montessori and missed valuable data or drew incorrect conclusions from the data.

In a study conducted by Clifford & Takacs (1991), graduates of the Montessori Head Start program at the Marotta Montessori School of Cleveland who had entered the Cleveland Public Schools (CPS) were studied in relation to their non-Montessori CPS peers. The comparisons showed the former Montessori students consistently fared better in math. In addition to this work, Boehnlein (1990) cited that low socioeconomic status children benefited significantly from Montessori preschool. Other studies confirm these results. Dr. Tim Duax (1989) studied the 1987 and 1988 graduates of MacDowell School, a Milwaukee public school Montessori program, ages 4 to 11. Of these students, the standardizedtest scores (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) of 84 percent of MacDowell graduates were above the 50th percentile, exceeding national norms. Nationally, 23 percent of students scored in the “high achievement” range; 44.5 percent of MacDowell graduates scored in that range. And while 23 percent of their peers nationally scored in the “low achievement” range, only 1.2 percent of MacDowell graduates scored in that range. Students in Montessori middle schools reported more positive motivation and experience than a matched sample of students from traditional middle schools (Rathunde & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). Five Montessori schools from four U.S. states participated in the study encompassing all social class levels. Rathunde et al (2003) followed up with an article that put Montessori’s rich understanding of the prepared environment in tandem with contemporary thought in both education and developmental psychology.

A study of the academic outcomes of two groups of students, who graduated from the same high school, found that 5 to 7 years after students had exited the Montessori programs and enrolled in traditional public schools, their math scores were still superior. This finding supports the hypothesis that Montessori education has a positive long-term impact. In essence, attending a Montessori program from ages 3 to 11 predicts significantly higher mathematics and science standardized test scores in high school (Gartner & Kerzner-Lipsky 2003).

In summary, these studies show that Montessori education at both the preschool and elementary levels benefits the child academically (Boehnlein, 1998). As the quantity, quality, and availability of empirical and randomized studies increase, Montessori schools will be able to make a stronger connection between their design decisions and the evidence of “what works” (Angrist, 2004).

Montessori Music Research

The decision to support music cannot be made without knowing the effects of music on academic achievement and its contribution to a student’s education. The goal is to meet and exceed the challenge of providing young children the best possible preparation for the future (Fiske, 1999). Assuming that a young child’s involvement in music programs provides a conceptual foundation for subjects such as mathematics, a study examining the difference in math achievement scores between Montessori students who received traditional Montessori instruction and students who received music enriched Montessori instruction predicts positive results (Harris, 2005). A sample of 190 students within the jurisdiction of a Montessori school board located in Southwestern Ontario was selected for the study. The researcher, an experienced Montessori teacher and music specialist, used the Test of Early Mathematics Ability 3 (TEMA-3) assessment for this study (Ginsburg & Baroody, 1998). This instrument measures mathematical achievement in 1) concepts of relative magnitude, 2) counting skills, 3) calculation skills, 4) knowledge of conventions, and 5) number facts (reviewed by American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education, 1999). All schools were established Montessori programs that met recognized affiliation standards (Boehnlein, 1998). The children in the study were divided into two groups, experimental and control. The experimental group received musicenriched Montessori instruction and the control group received traditional Montessori instruction. Children in both groups were post-tested on the TEMA-3. The children ranged in age from 3 years to 5 years. Table 1 (see next page) presents a cross-tabulation of their ages by group membership.

The largest group of students (n=73, 38.4 percent) were 3 years of age. This number included 38 (38.8 percent) in the experimental group and 35 (38.0 percent) in the control group. Of the 61 (32.1 percent) children who were four years of age, 30 (30.6 percent) were in the experimental group and 31 (33.7 percent) were in the control group. Among the 56 (29.5 percent) children who were five years of age at the time of the study, 30 (30.6 percent) were in the experimental group and 26 (28.3 percent) were in the control group.

The experimental group received 6 months of instruction in music, and then both groups were post-tested. The post-test scores of both groups were compared. The experimental music instruction was an “in- house”‘ music-enriched Montessori program, designed from appropriate early childhood educational perspectives and based on Kodaly techniques. The program was sequenced to teach concepts of pitch, dynamics, duration, timbre, and form as well as skills in moving, playing, listening, singing, and organizing sound. Children participated in three half-hour sessions weekly. The control group received traditional Montessori instruction during this period.

A 2 x 3 factorial analysis of variance was used to determine if a statistically significant difference existed between the experimental and control groups, based on their raw scores on the TEMA-3. The dependent variables in this analysis were scores on the TEMA-3, with group membership used as the independent variable. Table 2 presents results of this analysis.

The main effect of groups membership was statistically significant, indicating a difference in mathematics achievement between the experimental and control groups, F (1, 184) = 526.31, p

The students in the experimental group (m = 142.58, sd = 3.52) had significantly higher mathematics achievement outcomes than students in the control group (m = 118.30, sd = 12.52). Based on this finding, it appears that students who received music-enriched Montessori instruction had higher levels of mathematics achievement than students who received traditional Montessori instruction. When compared by age group, 3year-old students (m = 135.10, sd = 9.21) had higher scores than either the 4-year-old children (m = 130.49, sd = 15.59) or the 5-year-old children (m = 125.63, sd = 19.02). These findings indicate that 3-year-old students had higher mathematics achievement than children in the other two age groups.

The mean scores for the interaction indicate that children in the experimental group at all three age levels had higher scores than children in the control group. Among children in the experimental group, the 3-year-old children (m = 143.02, sd = 2.49) had the highest scores, followed by 4-year-old children (m = 140.00, sd = 2.26) and 5-year-old children (m = 140.60, sd = 4.70). Similar findings were obtained among the control group children, with 3- year-old students (m = 126.49, sd = 5.14) having the highest scores. The 4-year-old children (m = 117.42, sd = 11.04) had higher scores than the 5year-old students (m = 108.35, sd = 13.80). Initial results indicated that the music-enriched group had higher TEMA-3 mean scores than children with traditional Montessori musical experience.

Significance of the Study

Based on these findings, it appears that students who received musicenriched Montessori instruction had higher levels of mathematics achievement than students who received traditional Montessori instruction. When compared by age group, 3-year-old students had higher scores than either the 4-year-old or the 5-year- old children. These findings indicate that 3-yearold students had higher mathematics achievement than children in the other two age groups.

Suggested follow-up research would be a longitudinal 3-year study following the progress of the 3-year-old students and testing them again at 4 years and 5 years to see if there is consistent positive effect of enriched music instruction on these students’ math ability scores. This study offers quantitative results that could help Montessorians and other early childhood educators recognize the value of music-enriched instruction for the young child, and implementing the instructional designs used in this study could lead to higher levels of student achievement in math.

Further significant findings indicated that the Montessori students performed in the high percentile range for mathematics, based on the expected norms of the TEMA-3 testing tool (Ginsburg & Baroody, 2003). Of the Montessori students in the experimental group (those receiving musicenriched Montessori instruction) 100 percent fell in the 90-99 percentile range. These scores far exceed the expected norms of the TEMA-3.

The extensive research showing the improved academic achievement levels of children studying music; the positive long-term benefits of Montessori education on academic achievement levels of students; and this new 6-month study showing the positive impact of enriched music instruction on the math achievement of the Montessori child: it all raises questions about the impact of music on the academic achievement of the Montessori child over the standard 3year time frame.

The Need for Change

The deliberate teaching of higher order thinking processes deserves immediate attention in order to enable the kind of complex, holistic, and futuristic thinking needed to meet the shifting realities of change. There are many excellent teachers and administrators with vision and a sense of the new global realities in schools all over the world, and it may be idealistic to predict that the teaching of musically triggered creative, critical, and other quality higher-order thinking processes will move into educational programs worldwide. However, more powerful is the evidence that suggests that Learning Through the Arts is successfully breaking through barriers that have impeded learning. Children who study the arts score an average of 40 points higher in math and science; music education is superior even to computer instruction in enhancing early childhood mental capacity and intelligence; and music therapists demonstrate each day that music is powerful medicine, tearing down the walls of silence and affliction of Alzheimer’s, depression, Parkinson’s, and autism (Greene, 1999).

As Montessori education faces the challenges of the 21st century, it is also presented with opportunities and, perhaps, the responsibility to change the tune. Early childhood music education continues to grow and to improve. Now is the time to explore how research and practice reflect the wider world of early childhood education. Montessori children are achieving higher percentile scores on mathematics tests than non-Montessori children, and Montessori children receiving music-enriched Montessori instruction are achieving higher percentile scores on mathematics tests than those receiving traditional Montessori instruction. One can only imagine the possibilities across the curriculum for those children receiving music-enriched Montessori instruction. This study clearly shows that it is time to develop a new model for Montessori music education that will demonstrate the value of an artsbased comprehensive approach and serve as a practical blueprint for all Montessori classrooms.


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Suggested Reading

Campbell, D. (1997). The Mozart effect. New York: Avon Books.

Campbell, P S., & Kassner, C. S. (1995). Music in childhood. Available from /sehmann.

MAUREEN HARRIS, a Montessori educator and music professional, has spent 20 years working with young children. Her most recent publication is Montessori Mozarts. Contact her at mharris@montessori

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