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Researchers: Music Lessons Do Not Make Children Smarter

  • Jessica Berman

Children Learn to Play Music by Listening

Children Learn to Play Music by Listening

It’s commonly believed that teaching children music makes them smarter; but the authors of a new study say there’s no scientific evidence that early musical training has any effect on the intelligence of youngsters.

An estimated 80 percent of American adults think music lessons improve children's grades or boost their learning ability. In fact, children can get a lot of benefit from music lessons, say experts, from the pride that comes with learning how to play a new song to serving as an outlet for creativity.

Harvard University researchers in Massachusetts, however, have discovered that there’s one thing early musical training does not do - it does not increase intelligence.

Researchers led by School of Education graduate student Samuel Mehr say it's a misconception that learning to play an instrument enhances a child's cognitive development.

Mehr bases his conclusion on the results of studies that measured the mental aptitude of two groups of 4-year-olds and their parents. One group was assigned to a music class; the other to a class that emphasized visual arts.

“The evidence there is 'no.' We found no evidence for any advantage on any of these tests for the kids participating in these music classes," said Mehr.

While dozens of studies have been conducted to see whether musical training can make children smarter, Mehr says the results have been mixed. He says only one study, published several years ago in the journal Nature, seemed to show a slight 2.7 percent increase in IQ, or intellectual quotient, scores among students after one year of lessons.

But Mehr, who says IQ is not a good measure of a child’s intelligence, says researchers decided to compare how well children in the musical training group fared on mental processing tasks compared to those who received no music lessons.

There was no evidence that the musical training group significantly outperformed the other group on mental tasks. To confirm the results, researchers conducted a second study with a larger group of youngsters and their parents, and found no cognitive advantage to music lessons.

While lessons may not offer children a shortcut to prestigious academic institutions, Mehr says they are of significant cultural importance.

“We teach music because music is important to us. And I think to make an analogy to another area, we don’t teach Shakespeare so that our kids will be better at physics. We teach Shakespeare because it matters, because it’s important. And I don’t think music needs to be any different than that.”

An article looking at the benefits of musical training in children is published in the journal PLOS ONE.
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