Remember when you had to clap your hands to a particular rhythm in elementary school music class? You might have been doing yourself more good than you realized. A recent doctoral dissertation by Dr. Idit Sulkin (at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) studied the beneficial effect of hand-clapping songs on cognition.
The title of the dissertation is "Impact of Hand-Clapping Songs on Cognitive and Motor Tasks." I tried to track the actual document down to look at the details, but it looks like it hasn't yet been published. A news release has been disseminated around Internet, however, which you can find on ScienceDaily here.
It looks like the main result was found after randomly assigning students in elementary school classrooms to either take part in a music appreciation program or to undergo training in hand-clapping songs for ten weeks. After the hand-clapping training only, children who were lagging behind in cognitive abilities caught up. If it sounds like I'm being overly vague, it's because I am - the exact details are hidden in the not-yet-published dissertation (hopefully it will be soon). But for the purposes here, I'll accept the general conclusion that hand-clapping aids cognitive development.
As part of the same study, university students who engaged in hand-clapping songs, they reported being more focused and less tense. So maybe hand-clapping songs mediate their cognition-boosting effects mostly by increasing focus. If you think about what you have to do in these hand-clapping songs, you must pay close attention to the timing in order to clap at the right time...nothing makes you the least cool kid on the playground like clapping your hands at the wrong time.
I won't get into it too much here, but practicing hand-clapping songs, especially if they have complex rhythms, is likely to engage brain circuitry in the basal ganglia and cortex, which are involved in many motor and cognitive skills. (In fact, this is very similar to my dissertation research. So maybe I'll get a new release on the web when I finish mine.) Anyway, what we could be seeing here is transfer to cognitive skills as a result of practice with a specific motor skill.
In addition to reminding me of music class (unlike the kids described in the article, I never played clapping games on the playground - maybe if I did, I'd be more focused and already have my PhD), I was reminded of something we did in football practice. In the offensive huddle before a play, the count - the time in a quarterback's cadence ("hut...hut...hut") at which the ball would be snapped - is determined. In that way, the offense can get off the ball faster than the defense, which doesn't know on which "hut" the ball will be snapped.
Of course, the better an offensive player can time it, the more advantage he has. Therefore, one of the drills we did - usually after conditioning, so we were all tired - was to clap our hands on the right count when a coach called out the cadence. The reason we did this was to train ourselves to be able to focus - and maximize the offense's advantage - even when fatigued. If you clap early, that's a penalty (false start). If you clap late, the defender will hit you first. So perhaps these clap drills in football also have beneficial effects on your focus (which helps you in the game) - as well as cognition (which can help you in the classroom). However, any benefits for my brain may have been offset by my three concussions.
Yet another argument for why athletics is beneficial for academics...but before I digress too much, I'll bring it back to what the study says about these hand-clapping games. If the findings of the studies are true, then this would underscore the importance of keeping music training (including clapping songs) in our elementary schools - and perhaps even beyond. For older students who grow bored with hand-clapping, its benefits might also be found from playing instruments more difficult than the crude act of smashing your hands together - such as the guitar, piano, trumpet...even the coolest high-school band instrument of all, the triangle.