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.