Children playing musical instruments in Scotland. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod

Children playing musical instruments in Scotland. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod

There seems to be a general belief, especially among parents, that if you send children to music lessons the experience will make them smarter. However, a group of researchers at  University of Toronto, intrigued  by this highly thrown about, yet never proven, link between the two conducted a study to see if this belief genuinely holds. Their findings suggest, in the authors’ own words, that for a child to take music lessons purely for the presumed educational benefit is a “complete waste of time.”

Prof Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist from the University of Toronto, lead the study in which a group of 130 children, aged 10 to 12, were surveyed for the link between a presumed increase in intelligence and musical training. What the researchers concentrated on were two key personality traits: conscientiousness and openness to new experiences. The psychologists believe that these traits are essential to mental processes like memory, learning and reasoning, researchers said.

“We were motivated by the fact that kids who take music lessons are particularly good students, in school they actually do better than you would predict from their IQ, so obviously something else is going on and we thought that personality might be the thing,” Prof Schellenberg explained.

Based on these personality traits for each child, for whom data related to school grades and IQ scores were correlated, the psychologists ended up with an equation. After the likely contribution of each child’s personality was subtracted from the equation, the link between musical training and intelligence, or better said achievement, disappeared.

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The psychologists explain that the fact that  children that are musically trained perform well in school is due to social reasons, not cognitive ones. Typically, these children grow up in homes where the parents are well educated, earn above average, that offer them a better upbringing, in general, than that offered in a typical household. So a more privileged background is what actually the key difference maker, according to the researchers.

To emphasize their point further, the researchers were even able to rather accurately estimate how long a child had been taking music lessons based on their answers to a personality questionnaire alone. Previously other studies pointed to conclusions the other way around – that musical training does in fact boost cognitive capabilities.

“What this means is that kids who take music lessons have different personalities, and many or virtually all of the findings that have shown links between music and cognition may be an artifact of individual differences in personality,” he said.

“You can explain almost all of the data that are out there by saying that high-functioning kids take music lessons.”

Prof Daniel Levitin, a psychologist from McGill University in Montreal, said this did not mean music lessons were of no value, however.

“There are benefits to having a society where more people are engaged with the arts, so even if music instruction doesn’t make you a better mathematician or a better athlete, even if it only gives you the enjoyment of music, I think that is a good end in and of itself,” he said.

Now, in my humble opinion I agree with Schellenberg’s conclusions in one respect, but disagree on the other. Yes, it is very likely that personality traits help children achieve at school. On the other hand, however, isn’t musical training an important part in nurturing these traits and values? Playing the piano for instance puts a lot of strain and incentive on memory, perspective and most of all perseverance to achieve success, a highly important personality trait. So, while the root of child achievement may have been accurately signaled by the researchers, their conclusions that musical training adds no weight to this may be flawed.

ZME readers, discuss.