Do, Re, Mi, Fa-get the Piano Lessons: Music May Not Make You Smarter

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Music can soothe the soul and speed along creativity, but it won’t, according to researchers from Harvard, boost intelligence.

“More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children’s grades or intelligence,” said Samuel Mehr, a Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral student working in the lab of psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke, in a statement. “Even in the scientific community, there’s a general belief that music is important for these extrinsic reasons – but there is very little evidence supporting the idea that music classes enhance children’s cognitive development.”

The myth that music improves intelligence can be tied to a study published in 1993 in the journal Nature, which describes the “Mozart effect” as the ability for individuals who play instruments to perform better at spatial tasks. The study was later debunked, but the idea that music could make you smarter remained.

(MORE: Understanding How Music Moves Us)

When the Harvard investigators reviewed the available research connecting music and intelligence, they found that only five studies used randomized trials, the gold standard of scientific research in which participants were randomly assigned to either learn music or not, and only one reported a clear correlation to intelligence. And that study showed just a 2.7 increase in IQ among people who took music lessons for a year, which was barely considered statistically significant.

So to test the connection themselves, Mehr’s team studied 29 parents and their four-year olds. The kids took vocabulary tests and the parents took music aptitude tests at the start of the study. Then, the groups were randomly assigned to either take music training or visual art training together. The same teacher taught both of the classes, and the participants were again assessed after a year on cognition, vocabulary, math, and spatial tasks. These measures, the researchers say, are more accurate than a simple IQ test of cognitive abilities.

Music training, it turned out, did not benefit the groups’ cognition. The participants performed similarly on the vocabulary and number estimation measures and the kids who had music training performed only slightly better on one spatial task.

The researchers then replicated the study again, but with 45 parents and kids. Half the group was given music training and the other half didn’t receive any. As with the first study, the second round produced no evidence that musical training made the participants any smarter.

The researchers limited their research to classic music, and haven’t assessed whether the type of music makes any difference. And while they concluded that the idea that music makes you smarter is a myth, they argue that teaching children music is still important, and may have other benefits that aren’t all connected to cognitive skills.

8 comments
ChristopherBrianGillman
ChristopherBrianGillman

This is false (to generalize) and the information was taken from a short-lived, biased study. Not that it's the first time a major publication has done such a thing. O.O

As a musician, this is appalling because I not only debate and question things, I also experience them. Someone or even a group of people (who tend to agree when they get together) not experiencing the same is no ground for proving anything other than comparing one perspective to another. Also, I'd like to point out that piano lessons don't do it; it is the willingness and application of learning what music IS that makes you smarter, not just taking a lesson, however often that may be. People are missing the point of the matter a bit too much and getting a little too distracted with short-lived instant gratification styled entertainment.

However, as an artist this is acceptable with the single exception that anyone who reads this should disregard the generalized statements herein and understand that this is but a particular instance among many. Eggs not scrambling right one time out of 1,000 doesn't mean eggs don't scramble. It means you didn't learn to scramble them properly.

The point is more specifically this: People who study music and apply a learning curve to understanding music and how it works are more likely to expand their learning capabilities (or potential if you prefer) across the board because it involves learning to identify, recall and recognize things by sight and sound, teaches you mathematics and introduces you to applications of another spoken language as well as an alternate form of expression and communication. Most people might miss that part, though.

Think before you believe your media. You might find you learn more that way.

Titanus
Titanus

I think everyone so far has summed up my thinking on the subject as well.  I will add that there is one issue that I have not seen disputed; that playing music changes the shape of your brain.  There is a TV program (PBS I think) on Einstein that showed parts of his brain and the doctor explained that, depending on what kind of instrument you play, that your brain will grow with an enlarged area that supports playing music.  I am not suggesting that this is related to intelligence, just that it was interesting that music can cause and affect on the body.  

Cherryholmes
Cherryholmes

Weird. I never ever thought that learning a musical instrument made you smarter, or participating in any arts for that matter. As in doing math problems quicker or learning historic dates faster. -- Not "Smarter" but "Better". -- To have an appreciation of art expands the soul. And I'm pretty damn sure there is no research that supports that statement either.

violinmike
violinmike

Clearly it doesn't make you smarter, if that kid in the photo is anything to go by. She's holding her violin back to front.


But on a serious note (pun unintentional), while music teaching might not boost intelligence per se, it seems to have a positive effect on concentration, discipline and other key (sorry) qualities that in turn will increase performance in those vital maths and language classes.

Yazzflute
Yazzflute

Really? The only reason for music lessons is to make kids smarter? That view went out about 10 years ago... Music for its own sake is more valuable than 10 extra points on the SAT.

CanberkDayan
CanberkDayan

I believe that the effect of music depends on the kid's curiosity, character and family. There are some variables we can not just measure and put in an equation as a variable. I am sure if this study can show many different results depending on what variables you consider, and the characteristics of the control and experimental group.

Having been involved in music for the past 15 years or so, I can say that music and math are very correlated- if you can do math well, you can do music theory pretty well- however music doesn't only entitle music theory. If somebody's using their "ear" more heavily than the theory, then you can argue that their creativity levels are higher than someone who doesn't have any alike interests.

BorisIII
BorisIII

Somebody spent a lot of time and money on that test.  I always figured kids who where raised to do well in school and are born smarter are more prone to take music classes.