Critiquing the paper analyzing impact of Orff’s musical learning approach on spatial-temporal reasoning in children
The soothing effect of music on the human mind is by now well established. Music, from ancient times, has been accorded a high degree of respect in the socio-cultural context of human existence, being seen alternatively as a link that binds humanity to the divine or as‘food of love’ in literature and so on. The claim that music instruction has an impact on the cognitive abilities of human beings, since early childhood, is more recent and is still being analyzed by various researchers.
According to French researcher Alfred Tomatis, listening to music helped healing and development of the brain. He termed it the ‘Mozart effect’. (Tomatis, 1991). Carl Orff, a leading psychologist in the 1960s, popularized an approach to music instruction which used music, movement and speech simultaneously. The approach also propounded the use of musical instruments such as piano and keyboard to help spatial-temporal development among children. Since the 1960s, after Orff introduced it, this approach has been gaining popularity as a pedagogical technique in schools (Atterbury, 1992).
However, empirical evidence does not fully support the argument that Orff’s approach indeed helps spatial-temporal reasoning among children in the long term. The paper examined the experiments done by various researchers on this aspect, the results and the conclusions that can be drawn from their various analyses. The experiments cited here offer varying degree of confirmation to the hypothesis that spatial-temporal development among children is indeed helped in the long-term by music instruction.
However, while citing experiments done by various researchers, it seems not all of them tended to use the Orff approach in its entirety. While the paper is titled on the lines of specifically analyzing the effect of Orff-based musical instruction on spatial-temporal development, a lot of experiments cited do not confirm to this approach.
The paper cited an experiment conducted over a universe of 13 students giving them music lessons thrice a week for six weeks. A test comprising jigsaw puzzles was given to students and scores measured in terms of speed and accuracy before starting the six week lessons, immediately after six week of music lessons and six weeks after ceasing of the lessons. The pretest results, the paper cited were less impressive than the first post test immediately after the music lessons and the second posttest six weeks after ceasing the lessons. The paper fails to take into account the fact that in the first post test, students were already familiar with the jigsaw puzzles and were therefore able to solve them faster and with better accuracy. While the paper claims that it did not seem to have an effect on results, the better scores in the first pretest do suggest otherwise. Also in the second posttest the scores are worse than than the pretest. Does that mean that stopping music lessons abruptly can have a detrimental impact on cognitive ability than not having music lessons at all? The paper fails to examine or explain this aspect.
The paper cites experiments conducted by various researchers and bases its own experiment on it, but most of the experiments cited do not confirm to Orff’s approach in all purity. Orff’s approach involves use of tonebar xylophone instruments such as piano, keyboard etc, but most of these experiments did not involve use of these. For instance in experiments by Gromko and Poorman and Flohr, in 1996 as well as 1998, various activity based music lessons were used but there was no use of piano, keyboard or other tonebar xylophone instrument. And it is exactly in these experiments that the posttest results did not show any significant improvement in cognitive ability among subjects. The paper fails to investigate this angle, which could be a serious challenge to the assumption that the use of these instruments is not critical to the success of Orff-based musical instruction in developing spatial-temporal reasoning among children.
The paper also fails to take into account the influence of frequency of music lessons in developing cognitive ability. In at least two of the three cases where results were not significant, the time over which music lessons were imparted ranged from six to ten weeks, compared to seven to ten months and even three years in experiments that showed significant results. Even in the third case of Gromko and Poorman where results were not significant, music lessons were imparted just once a week, albeit for seven months. Could this mean that music lessons have to be imparted over a longer period of time to have any meaningful impact on cognitive ability? Just as learning any new thing takes regular and repeated practice on the part of students? The paper fails to investigate and examine this line of reasoning, which makes itself apparent from an analyses of experiments and their results that the paper cites.
Among all the experiments cited by the paper, the one by Costa-Giomi (Costa-Giomi, 1998) has the largest universe of students in the treatment group. It also involves the longest period of time that is three years. It also seems to confirm the most to the Orff-based approach, as it involved giving piano lessons. The results of this experiment confirm a gradual increase in cognitive ability of children over the first year and the second year. Given that the experiment can be said to have been conducted with higher rigor, its results could be construed as validating the argument that Orff-based approach does help cognitive ability in the long-term, provided lessons continue. The fact that in the third year no significant improvement was seen in cognitive ability cannot take away from this argument, because each IQ-building activity has its limits and reaches saturation in the absence of other supporting activities.
In their own experiment conducted by the authors, the second posttest conducted after a six-week hiatus in music lessons, found the object assembly ability of children had again declined to pretest levels. In fact the scores suggest it worsened than the pretest levels. This should be a strong case in itself to propagate longer time frames and frequency of music lessons.
The paper does not discuss this aspect in detail. Is it the soothing effect of the music lessons, which is responsible for improving the attention span and cognitive ability of children? In the absence of music lessons, this soothing effect would be taken away, is that the reason why students’ cognitive abilities returned to pretest levels?
The paper also takes into account experiments that mostly involved object assembly test, which although appropriate in the case of the age group of students, is not a conclusive evidence to prove whether the cognitive ability of children improved or not. The authors themselves concede that the test-retest reliability of object assembly cannot be totally relied upon. In such a situation it would become imperative to try and introduce more measures to assess the impact and make a reasonable judgment. If the experiment had introduced more parameters or measures, could the results have varied. The paper does not discuss that possibility, nor does it mention what other ways of measuring development of cognitive ability in children could have been utilized apart from the one cited.
Also is a small universe of 13 students good enough for the experiment? As stated earlier, the experiment by Costa-Giomi which can be treated as a benchmark involved a bigger universe of students and therefore can be said to be a more varied sample of students, where the likelihood of variance if any can be better studied. The paper does not mention what kind of cognitive ability was inherent in students before starting the experiment. What kind of students recorded the most significant change in spatial-temporal reasoning as a result of music lessons? Was there a significant difference in the development shown by students belonging to different ethnic backgrounds or gender that could have affected the overall assessment? It is highly unlikely that the results could have been uniform in the case of all students. Therefore analyzing the differences in cognitive development as a result of differences in background should have been n important part of this study. That could also have given clues as to why do the results of experiments relating to Orff-based music instruction on cognitive abilities of children vary so much, whether there is a possibility of different types of students reacting differently to this teaching approach and so on.
In conclusion, one could say that the experiments cited by the authors themselves do suggest a strong positive correlation between Orff-based music instruction and the cognitive ability of children. However, the paper does not take cognizance of this, while concluding that the effect of musical instruction on cognitive ability, especially spatial-temporal cannot be clearly established.
Atterbury, B. (1992). Research on the teaching of elementary general music. In R. Colwell (Ed.),
Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning (pp. 594-601). Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference.
Gromko, J. E., & Poorman, A. (1998). The effect of music training on preschoolers’ spatial temporal task performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46, 173-18 1.
Tomatis A. (1991). Pourqoi Mozart (Why Mozart?).