Playing an instrument comes with a wide range of benefits, especially for children. It teaches them discipline and how to focus on an important task at hand. It also fuels creativity. There’s a well constructed myth, however, that playing an instrument makes you smarter, as in it improves your cognitive abilities somehow. This idea is so entrenched that nearly 80% of American adults agree with this statement. Where did this notion come from and is true in the first place? A study from Harvard University performed a thorough analysis of currently published literature on the matter and after making a study of their own, they concluded that there’s no significant cognitive benefits following music lessons.
The “Mozart Effect”
It all started with a study published in 1993 in the journal Nature which concluded that listening to music improves temporal and spatial reasoning. The findings – which remained known under the label the ” Mozart effect” – were then featured in the press all over the world, as confirmation of something everybody thought they already knew inside. Follow-up studies later debunked the 1993 study’s methodology, but somehow people hanged-on to this false notion. Nevertheless other researchers became interested in going further with this by studying whether taking music lessons can improve cognitive skills.
So far, there have been dozens of studies that explore whether and how music and cognitive skills might be connected. Samuel Mehr, a Harvard Graduate School of Education(HGSE) doctoral student, looked at most of the scientific literature on the subject, but could only find five studies that used randomized trials – otherwise there’s a big chance causal relationships in cognitive behavior may become skewed. Of the five, only one showed an unambiguously positive effect, and it was so small — just a 2.7 point increase in IQ after a year of music lessons — that it was barely enough to be statistically significant.
“The experimental work on this question is very much in its infancy, but the few published studies on the topic show little evidence for ‘music makes you smarter,’” Mehr said.
Playing for the love of music, not for the love of brains
Mehr and colleagues decided they would make their own study on the subject and recruited 29 parents and 4-year-old children from the Cambridge area. Before starting, the children’s vocabulary skills as well as the parents’ musical aptitudes were evaluated. Then, each parent-child pair was assigned to one of two classes: either musical lessons or visual art lessons.
“We wanted to test the effects of the type of music education that actually happens in the real world, and we wanted to study the effect in young children, so we implemented a parent-child music enrichment program with preschoolers,” Mehr said. “The goal is to encourage musical play between parents and children in a classroom environment, which gives parents a strong repertoire of musical activities they can continue to use at home with their kids.”
Also, the researchers wanted to really look deeper into any effects musical lessons might have on cognition, so they looked for improvements in other specific areas of cognition, not just the standard IQ score.
“Instead of using something general, like an IQ test, we tested four specific domains of cognition,” Mehr said. “If there really is an effect of music training on children’s cognition, we should be able to better detect it here than in previous studies, because these tests are more sensitive than tests of general intelligence.”
The assessments showed that children who received music training performed slightly better at one spatial task, while those who received visual arts training performed better at the other. Still, only 29 children were involved in the study and since the effects were really slight, a statistical irrelevance resulted. So, the study was replicated with 45 parents and children, this time half of them received musical trained, while the other didn’t – not even visual art lessons.
Just as in the first study, Mehr said, there was no evidence that music training offered any cognitive benefit. Even when the results of both studies were pooled to allow researchers to compare the effect of music training, visual arts training, and no training, there was no sign that any group outperformed the others.
“There were slight differences in performance between the groups, but none were large enough to be statistically significant,” Mehr said. “Even when we used the finest-grained statistical analyses available to us, the effects just weren’t there.”
Music doesn’t make you smarter – but it’s no less important!
Parents who think of sending their kids to musical lessons just to make them smarter, should think again. If this is their only goal in mind, they’re wasting good money and time. However, listening or playing music isn’t about getting smarter. There’s much more to it – clearly there are benefits to learning to play an instrument. Playing an instrument improves self-confidence, social cohesion, discipline and nurtures the soul.
“There’s a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits,” he said. “We don’t teach kids Shakespeare because we think it will help them do better on the SATs. We do it because we believe Shakespeare is important.
“Music is an ancient, uniquely human activity. The oldest flutes that have been dug up are 40,000 years old, and human song long preceded that,” he said. “Every single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach this to our children.”
The findings were reported in a paper published in the journal PLoS One.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.