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Music Training May Not Make Children Smarter After All

It has been claimed that music fosters children’s cognitive skills and academic achievement. Learning to play the violin or the piano, recognize pitches, and keep the beat are often presented as effective cognitive enhancement tools.

Research trials, carried out to examine a potential causal link between music training and improved cognitive and academic performance, have reached inconsistent conclusions, with some suggesting that there may be a link between music training and better cognitive and academic performance, and others finding little effect.

Recent reviews confirm that in addition to being good listeners, musically trained individuals exhibit enhanced performance on tests of verbal abilities, including vocabulary, phonological awareness, reading, and spelling. Music training is also associated positively with performance on tests of spatial abilities, non-verbal reasoning, auditory and visual memory (Corrigall et al., 2013), In one study, for example, children with music training had IQs 10 points higher than their untrained counterparts (Schellenberg, 2011).

Sala and Gobet (2020) examined existing experimental evidence regarding the impact of music training on children’s non-music cognitive skills and academic achievement. The authors re-analyzed data from 54 previous studies conducted between 1986 and 2019, including a total of 6,984 children. They found that music training appeared to be ineffective at enhancing cognitive or academic skills, regardless of the type of skill (such as verbal, non-verbal, speed-related, and so on), participants’ age, and duration of music training.

When comparing between the individual studies included in their meta-analysis, the authors found that studies with high-quality study design, such as those which used a group of active controls — children who did not learn music but instead learned a different skill, such as dance or sports — showed no effect of music education on cognitive or academic performance. Small effects were found in studies that did not include controls or which did not randomize participants into control groups (ones that received different or no training) and intervention groups (ones that received music training).

Giovanni Sala, the lead author said, ”Our study shows that the common idea that ‘music makes children smarter’ is incorrect. On the practical side, this means that teaching music with the sole intent of enhancing a child’s cognitive or academic skills may be pointless. While the brain can be trained in such a way that if you play music, you get better at music, these benefits do not generalize to cognitive skills like memory, and academic achievement such as math, reading, or writing. Researchers’ optimism about the benefits of music training appears to be unjustified and may stem from misinterpreting previous empirical data.

Fernand Gobet, the corresponding author added: “Music training may nonetheless be beneficial for children, for example by improving social skills or self-esteem. Certain elements of music instruction, such as arithmetical music notation could be used to facilitate learning in other disciplines.”

The authors caution that too few studies have been conducted to reach a definitive conclusion about the possible positive effects of music education on non-academic or cognitive characteristics. Alternative potential avenues involving music activities may be worth exploring.

References and sources:

Corrigall, K. A., Schellenberg, E. G., & Misura, N. M. (2013). Music training, cognition, and personality. Frontiers in Psychology4, 222. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00222

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2020). Cognitive and academic benefits of music training with children: A multilevel meta-analysis. Memory & Cognition. doi:10.3758/s13421-020-01060-2

Schellenberg, E. G. (2011). Examining the association between music lessons and intelligence. British Journal of Psychology, 102(3), 283–302. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.2010.02000.x