In this article we take a look at the questions, ‘Do music lessons make a child smarter? Do music lessons have ‘collateral benefits’ that extend to non-musical areas of intelligence? Do music lessons increase a child’s overall IQ level, making them better at reasoning, math and language comprehension?’ How these questions has been answered is as interesting as what the answers turn out to be.
Why are these questions of interest?
Here is one answer. Children have limited free time to invest into extra-curricular activities, and parents have to make choices between activities for their children. If the choice is between, for example, ballet and music lessons, and music is known to increase intelligence but ballet is not, this might be reason enough to choose music over ballet. Ballet may be good for reasons that music may not be – for motor coordination skills, for example – but at least now the parent has a firmer basis on which to choose.
How can we NOT answer the question: Does music lessons improve IQ?
The question ‘does music lessons make a child smarter?’ isn’t something that can be answered through common sense and the facts of personal experience. It may be tempting to reason from your observation that all the children you know who take music lessons are doing well at school, that these lessons must be helping them develop their intelligence and school success. But this conclusion isn’t justified. Why not? Because it’s just as likely that they are both doing better at school and taking music because they are from a certain socioeconomic class where the average IQ is higher to begin with. Children with high IQs are more likely than other children to take music lessons because better educated and more affluent parents tend to provide music lessons for their children – it’s part of the culture of the more educated and affluent to provide music lessons. Not all educated and affluent parents, but a lot of them. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that music lessons have any impact on the childrens’ developing intelligence. Many educated and affluent parents also buy certain brands of clothes for their children, but the clothes children wear don’t make them more intelligent.
So we cannot go about trying to figure out whether taking music lessons improves IQ like this.
How we CAN answer the question: Does music lessons improve IQ?
To find out the answer to this question we need to do an experiment. We need to set things up like this: take a lot of children from a variety of backgrounds and randomly assign (by the flip of a coin) half of these children to music lessons for a year, and half to some other extracurricular activity for a year – for instance ballet, or football. We test both groups of children on an IQ test before the lessons, and then again after the lessons, and see if there is a difference between the two groups. If there is a difference – if those who took music lessons on average score higher on the IQ test – we know that it’s not due to family background (because family backgrounds are mixed evenly across the two groups). If we find a difference we will also be more confident that the intelligence gain is specific to music and not any extra curricular activity (whether music, drama, ballet, karate or soccer). In essence, by doing this kind of ‘critical experiment’ we make sure that we’ve pinpointed the effect of the music lessons on intelligence.
Schellenberg’s critical experiment
In 2004 someone finally did this scientific experiment: Glenn Schellenberg from the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto. He put an advertisement in a local, community newspaper, offering free, weekly arts lessons for 6 year olds for a year. 144 children were then assigned randomly to one of four different groups, with 36 children in each group. Group 1 was given keyboard lessons, Group 2 was given voice/singing lessons, Group 3 was given drama lessons, and Group 4 had no extra-curricular lessons. The instructors were trained, female professionals. The children in all groups took an intelligence test called the WISC-III both before and after the year of lessons. The WISC-III is the most highly regarded and widely used intelligence test for children. All four groups had the same average IQ level at the start of the experiment. Children in each group differed in their intelligence level of course, but the average intelligence of each group was the same. This is obviously important for us to draw any conclusions about the effects of the different types of lessons.
And what did Schellenberg find? Does music lessons increase IQ?
The first interesting finding was that all four groups of children showed an increase in IQ level after the year was up, even the group that took no lessons whatsoever. What explains this general increase in IQ for all children? An increase of IQ known to be a usual consequence of entering grade school. Since all these children started grade school during the period of the experiment, it is easy to explain this general IQ increase as due to simple attendance at school.
But – and this is the crux – the two music lesson groups had significantly greater gains in IQ than the drama and ‘no-lesson’ groups. We can conclude from this data that taking music lessons, but not drama lessons, caused gains in intelligence in addition to the gains obtained by attending school. The type of music lesson didn’t matter (whether keyboard or voice); both groups had the same average IQ score after a year of lessons. And both music groups had a 3 point higher IQ score compared to the drama and no-lesson groups who didn’t differ from each other in their IQ score.
This relative superiority of IQ in the music groups was not confined to one particular aspect of intelligence – such as spatial intelligence – but was found in all but 2 of the 12 subtests of the WISC-III intelligence test, across a broad range of cognitive abilities that require intelligence. It benefited all subtests of what is known as fluid intelligence – the ability to reason and find relationships in a way that does not depend on background knowledge.
The size of the effect: How should we judge it?
3 IQ points doesn’t sound like a big effect, but there is a way of looking at this gain in IQ that help put it in perspective and help us evaluate its importance. Compare it to the gain of first going to grade school. The average IQ gain of going to school was about 4 points. The additional gain of taking music lessons (3 points) was, therefore, nearly as much as the full experience of school itself. This is now looking like quite a big effect.
What is special about music?
We need to be clear about one thing. Schellenberg’s experiment shows that music lessons improve IQ for six year olds. It does not tell us that music lessons improve IQ for older children or for adults unfortunately. Six year old’s brains are known to be highly ‘plastic’ – that is, these young brains can be shaped and reorganized to a large extent by experience. Older children and adults have less brain plasticity and it might be predicted that a year of music lessons in this case would have less of an impact on general intelligence – although we don’t know for sure.
In taking music lessons, knowledge and skill relating to music increases, and this is important in itself. But what Schellenberg’s experiment shows is that in addition to this, general cognitive ability is also trained and improved – indirectly. Taking music lessons is good ‘brain training’ at this age! Music lessons involve long periods of focused attention, daily practice, reading musical notation, memorization of extended musical passages, learning about a variety of musical structures (e.g., scales, chords), and progressive mastery fine-motor skills. It is not known exactly which combination of these skills improves general intelligence, and further studies will have to investigate this question.
The author, Dr Mark A. Smith, is a cognitive neuroscientist, author and entrepreneur. Between 2000 and 2003 he was a Lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge. His most recent position has been as Assistant Professor at Bilkent University, Turkey. His current research is in fluid intelligence and its evolution in human cognition. He has recently set up a cognitive interventions laboratory for experimental research into brain training tools and brain nutrition.