If you’ve got your kid in piano lessons because you think it will make her smarter, Harvard researchers have some bad news for you.
Despite widespread belief to the contrary, there is little to no evidence to conclude that music improves intelligence.
“More than 80 per cent of American adults think that music improves children’s grades or intelligence,” Samuel Mehr, a doctoral student in the Harvard graduate school of education, said 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.”
So where did we get the idea that music makes you smarter? It was popularized by a study published in the journal Nature in 1993. That study gave us the so-called “Mozart effect,” the name given by researchers who said that listening to the composer’s music for as little as 10 minutes improved people’s performance on spatial tasks.
The study, however, has since been debunked.
But still, the myth persists. In part because there have been many studies that have linked music and cognitive ability.
Dig through those studies, however, as Mehr did, and you’ll find only five of them used randomized trials. And of those five, only one showed that music had a clear effect. And that effect was negligible – only a 2.7 point increase in IQ after one year of music lessons.
“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.
Mehr and colleagues tested the connection between music and intelligence in two studies.
In the first, 29 parents and four-year-old children were randomly assigned to either a music training class or a visual arts class.
Parents and kids were tested for cognition, vocabulary, mathematics and two spatial tasks.
“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.”
What did the results show? No evidence of a link.
A second study enlarged the number of participants to 45 parents and children. Half of them were given music training, while half got none.
Again, no link was found between learning music and increased intelligence.
“Even when we used the finest-grained statistical analyses available to us, the effects just weren’t there,” Mehr said.
Does that mean we should yank those violins out of kids’ hands? Obviously not.
There are plenty of benefits to learning music other than increased intelligence, Mehr 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.”