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Do Music Lessons Make You Smarter?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Practice makes progress, if not perfection, for most things in life. Generally, practicing a skill—be it basketball, chess or the tuba—mostly makes you better at whatever it was you practiced. Even related areas do not benefit much. Doing intensive basketball drills does not usually make a person particularly good at football. Chess experts are not necessarily fabulous at math, and tuba players can’t just put down their tubas and pick up cellos.

Courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr.

That said, some learning does transfer from one skill to another. If you play a lot of basketball, you might be physically fit and also have discerned rules about ball movement and how to work with a team—which could be useful for playing other sports. Younger players who master chess notation learn something about coordinates, which show up in math. And tuba lessons often require or include instruction reading music, knowledge that comes in handy for the cello as well.

But experts have long debated the effects of any of these or others on general intellect. That is, does engaging in these optional activities really build the brain in any fundamental way? Can we measure changes in an intelligence-related capacity such as attention, working (short-term) memory or reasoning from playing basketball, chess or the tuba? If so, the learning would indeed transfer to a broad set of other tasks and people would consider the activity particularly worthwhile. Many studies show that physical fitness is good for your brain, and at least one indicates that playing team sports such as hockey and soccer could improve the ability to visualize moving objects in 3-D. Chess involves a lot of reasoning, so some kids might boost their reasoning skills by playing chess, a hypothesis psychologists are now investigating.

What about music?

Journalist and author Lydia Denworth reported in her article, “How Video Games Change the Brain,” in the January Scientific American Mind, that practicing certain types of video games (the violent first-person shooter ones) does enhance a huge variety of basic thinking skills such as visual attention and spatial reasoning. Practicing music does not. She writes: “With practice, a violinist can play a Mozart string concerto beautifully, but that will not make her better at much else.”

That sentence provoked the ire of more than one reader. One, Gabriel Newman, wrote: “Is she not aware that there are more studies on the benefits of learning musical instruments and art on the mind than on the benefits of video games? There is a huge transfer that takes place when someone engages in music and art.” But Denworth stands by her statement. Here is her response:

I acknowledge that my statement about the lack of transfer from music left something out. Had I gone into more detail, however, what I would have said is that while there have been studies showing transfer from music, nearly all of them have been called into question in recent years. “There are a whole lot of transfer claims for the arts and most of them are false,” says Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College who specializes in cognition in the arts and has done extensive reviews of these studies.

Much of the literature makes the mistake of inferring causation from correlation, and fails to control for confounding variables. Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who studies transfer from music specifically, has new, not yet published work showing that the association between music lessons and cognition disappears when demographics and personality are held constant. In other words, the apparent benefits from music lessons have more to do with which kids take music lessons than they do with the lessons themselves. In addition, studies of adult professional musicians show no cognitive benefits over comparable professional non-musicians.

Courtesy of Brandon Giesbrecht via Flickr.

Schellenberg did find, in a 2004 study that randomly assigned first graders to music or drama classes, that the children in the music group showed small IQ gains at the end of one year and those in the drama group did not. (Those who studied drama got a different benefit: their social behavior improved.) Schellenberg cautions that, as with his discovery that the so-called Mozart Effect was due to positive arousal and not music per se, the gains in his 2004 study may result from the IQ improvement that accrues just from being in school. The music lessons, in which students studied either keyboard or voice, were more school-like than the drama.

Other studies have shown a connection between musical training and improved auditory skills, but that is not quite the same thing as showing transfer to other skills. Nina Kraus and her colleagues at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University are doing interesting work in this area. But, to take one example, a 2012 study from Kraus’s laboratory that got some media attention showed cognitive benefits in undergraduates who report having studied music as children, which still begs the question of what skills they had from the start. By contrast, the studies of action video games are considered stronger and more convincing on the question of transfer because they show that people with no prior experience benefit in the variety of ways my story outlined when they train on such games.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. The Ethical Skeptic 10:42 am 03/1/2013

    To address this topic, it is incumbent that a researcher understand what is indeed, music. Music is no simple brain activity.

    I found music to be much more than simply correlating black dots on a grand staff with a finger position on a fretboard, keyboard or saxophone key set. I failed at band in elementary school. I was not taught music there, I was taught a method of reading, how to fit in sync with a large group and how to not make a mistake. This was not music. Most students depart the requisite four years of school band not understanding the first thing about music. Were one to confuse the two whilst conducting research, one would get divergent results in a study on what music may impart to intellect, or intellectual arousal. If a person can explain (in simple terms and intuitively) the diatonic intervals of blues, versus a harmonic minor, and the resulting chord progressions on a muli-timbral instrument – and then deliver a heartfelt and very simple solo based on those intervals. Then something else is going on in that person which is entirely different. That is music.

    We must remember the Hawthorne Effect as well. The effect of observing humans will alter their performance. So it is feasible that we might test students who really do not understand music, yet ironically still obtain a confirmation bias that underpins the idea that music makes a person more intelligent. One corollary which I have worked with in my business research as well, is that alterations in environment (ones which do not directly become an obstacle to performance) will stimulate improved performance from humans, even in absence of their conscious knowledge of being observed. Within reason it does not matter what the alteration indeed is.

    Maybe this explains the heart and soul of bureaucracy? LOL!! Perhaps we should do a study on how following rote procedures as a cog in a large group – creates ignorance?

    Good stuff.

    – TES

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  2. 2. nicholasjh1 1:22 pm 03/1/2013

    All I know is that there is an unusual amount of concert trained musicians that are in software development. I believe all the training on being able to read complex music and think about it and do something at the same time transfers to being able to read understand a program very quickly. – note that this would probably not be something gained as much from the relatively low level of training in most highschool orchesetras (not that nothing is gained). I realize this is anecdotal, but the having worked 12 different contracts and seeing that around 50% of highly effective developers are concert trained musicians does make me believe. I’ve talked to my developer friend who is a concert trained cellist and he defintely reads code this way and programs with all the code that exists in mind.

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  3. 3. TTLG 1:30 pm 03/1/2013

    I wonder how much of the change in the brain from playing video games is like the Mozart Effect: due to positive arousal? Video games are fun. Music lessons usually are not. Perhaps if learning music was made as much fun, the effects would be as substantial.

    The other issue I see is that any brain improvement due to any of these practices is based on the idea that these are done in addition to a regular education of literature, math, science, etc. If one only studied music, video games, or drama to the exclusion of everything else, I doubt that person would be very capable in anything outside of that one area. I think it is the combination of skills, the thinking flexibility that is needed to do such highly different tasks that makes the difference.

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  4. 4. FormerComposer 2:11 pm 03/1/2013

    As my nom de plume indicates, I have some background in music, specifically composition. When I gave that up, it was partly (mostly?) because of the large number of similarities with computer programming (which I then did for the better part of 3 decades.) Composing deals with limited resources, interacting parts, time constraints, space restraints, accessibility, formal methods and informal techniques, historical forces, patrons, etc. Programming deals with limited resources, interacting parts, time constraints, … well, you get the idea. Both of them are like playing a mostly self-designed version of whack-a-mole.

    I have also noticed a higher than expected number of folks with some kind of musical training in technical areas like programming. Teamwork, clockwork, constrained originality (or genius), multiple threaded thinking, and the like are useful in many endeavors.

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  5. 5. SAReadersince67 6:35 pm 03/1/2013

    Well, if I learn a new piece of music or part thereof (as I do every week as I study classical guitar) am I not making some net gain of a cerebral nature of some kind (other factors such as held constant)??? Whether we call it a cognitive improvement or an improved skilled, or learning, is perhaps a definitional paradigm, rather than a physical measure. But the tangible sense of the musician of having acquired something by practicing and learning is surely real, and is a profound psychological manifestation, as musicians will attest. Perhaps learning a modestly challenging composition, say the popular Study #5 (Opus 35 no. 22) by Fernando Sor, does not make one a better economist or physician or science writer, but it sure feels like it to those of us who exercise our minds in that way. So perhaps we are deluded to think so, but that in itself is an interesting phenomenon, because to think we are somehow gaining more widely useful cognition is hard to tell apart from just the delusion. It is a facet of the self fulfilling prophecy. And there is also the physical fitness aspect which is hard to put off to a fallacy: exercising the hand, arms, indeed the whole body in practicing music appears to create something tangible. If your fingers ache after a thorough lesson or practice, is this not a form of fitness training which will have a variety of benefits. The literature seems full of claims that exercise benefits cognition. If that is true, then the physical exercise of playing an instrument, even conducting an orchestra, must be salutary. Anyway, if you like making music, who cares if it makes you a more effective financial analyst or engineer or locomotive train driver. Its good fun and sociability.

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  6. 6. huler 7:15 pm 03/1/2013

    What a nicely done piece. I love to have my beliefs challenged — I deeply believed that music lessons were important for more than just music. I’ll still teach my kids music, but for music’s sake. Nice work!

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  7. 7. Matthewt69 7:27 pm 03/3/2013

    This just sounds like a bunch of journalists and psychologists floundering around in the dark as usual. The studies are invariably too small and with weak statistical significance, probably smarter to chuck them all in the bin and admit we just dont really know. learning music seems like a good idea to me regardless of whether it improves general intelligence (a dubious concept in itself)

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  8. 8. Quaternaria 2:44 am 03/4/2013

    Let’s assume that ten percent of the music teachers really know their stuff. If you take music lessons with a really good teacher, you will learn to concentrate for hours at a time, which will help you in all aspects of your life. If you play in an orchestra or band, or sing in choir, you will fine tune your networking and social skills. You will be very unlikely to lead a life of crime, and if you take on conducting you can work vigorously into your 80s, if you want to.
    Does it make you smarter? If you can’t see the benefit, your results will likely be skewed as well. There’s no way to really measure whether you have a great teacher, but since I have been teaching music for more than forty years, and I have seen the difference it makes it people’s lives, I can say “no worries, good investment.”
    I would add the Einstein played the violin, and Max Planck played the piano and cello, as well as wrote operas. Coincidence? I doubt it.

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  9. 9. djwray 5:56 am 03/6/2013

    Most musicians would agree that there is a world of difference between playing music and creating music – and many of them would say that an ability to create music is a better indicator of intelligence than an ability to play music. So perhaps you should also be asking the question “Does creating music make you smarter?”.
    Complex Evolution – The Game Theory of Human Consciousness

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  10. 10. TakeLessons 6:36 pm 03/7/2013

    The are a number of studies with significant sample sizes that have shown improvements in test scores and cognitive abilities, it just really depends on what you consider being smarter.

    A while back we released an infographic on this topic highlighting some of the most popular studies –

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  11. 11. jgrosay 7:22 pm 03/8/2013

    They say yes, music learning may increase the IQ of those receiving it by as much as 2 to 3 points; thus, playing violin is one of the gifts that Albert Einstein may have got from the german education environment of his time.

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  12. 12. sully2302 10:18 pm 03/10/2013

    Denworth shows herself to be a pop-science writer of the Jonah Lehrer brand in this conversation. Her writing is only the notion of science, not the real thing.

    What’s most funny to me is that she is a complete ignoramus on her topic (music). You can see it in this sentence here:
    “With practice, a violinist can play a Mozart string concerto beautifully, but that will not make her better at much else.”


    This kind of failure to use vocabulary that demonstrates even passing familiarity with her subject would be akin to me saying “the hypothesis of gravity”, rather than “the theory of gravity”.

    Her many sleights of hand here are annoying and obvious.

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  13. 13. lpearse 11:12 pm 04/14/2013

    I have serious doubts about this article, both from my own anecdotal experience and from my readings of many books and studies about music psychology and auditory perception.

    That said, what really throws the credibility of this author’s position into question is the statement:

    “Other studies have shown a connection between musical training and improved auditory skills, but that is not quite the same thing as showing transfer to other skills”

    How exactly are auditory skills not actually other skills? How is increased perceptual ability, which music clearly enhances, not linked to cognitive acuity?

    I’m sure there are studies that focus on this this, but they are almost unnecessary to cite, as the difference in the ability to accurately analyze auditory information in terms of pitch, rhythm and timbre are the hallmarks of musical education. They are what being musically literate means.

    We can only think about what we can perceive, so therefore more accurate perceptual abilities lead to the opportunity for more accurate cognitive judgements. How is this not improving cognitive ability?

    This seems to me like a lazy, category-driven argument that dismisses auditory intelligence without examining it whatsoever.

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  14. 14. jessicaparks 5:59 am 05/20/2013

    Music Lessons indeed increase intelligence quote, I have seen great improvement in my sons ability to break down situations and analyze pieces of work. Its evident the musical teachings are helping him grow. I actually singed up for a program which I found on one of the Music Lesson resource sites, its called for those wanting to increase there intelligence quota. Music is wonderful…

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  15. 15. jessicaparks 6:00 am 05/20/2013

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  16. 16. collettedesmaris 2:55 pm 06/21/2013

    It would behoove the author of this article to actually research the subject about which she writes; especially a subject as complex as music. I found it particularly offensive that the author made erroneous statements with such authority; and that she cited just one individual’s opinion who didn’t even offer the correct information! It is a reprehensible act to publish such glaringly inaccurate information – because of those among us who are looking for the learning, who might actually believe this rubbish.

    This entire article should be an extraordinary embarrassment to not only the author, but to Scientific American as well. Regardless that they are “not responsible for the content”, the information put forth here comes under their umbrella; and you couldn’t
    pay me enough money to allow this to be published under my organization’s name, for all the world to see. There is nothing “scientific” about the content in this article, and as for you, Ms. Wickelgren – shame on you!

    Where do I begin?
    The author poses the question, “Do Music Lessons Make You Smarter?”
    Studying music and/or a musical instrument renders one so much more than “smarter”; and the question asked isn’t really the right one.
    Exposure to participating in the world of music can benefit in multiple & diverse ways . . . too many for me to list here; but I’ll mention a few:

    Music engages the brain while stimulating neural pathways associated with higher forms of intelligence such as abstract thinking, empathy, & mathematics. Learning to correlate the musical notes with the instrument is mind-hand-eye-emotions coordination training. Music is a creative experience that involves the expression of; and feeling of – feelings.
    In essence, there is nothing like it.

    Music develops skills like “doing”, “communicating”, “cooperating”, “participating”, putting oneself out there. Improves memory recall skills.
    Musicians are more in tune to the sounds around them than non-musicians. By virtue of the fact that they learn the “language” of music, and then must correlate that language to the instrument dictates that there is advanced brain functioning happening. Studying music will make one think more creatively & solve problems better; & the individual will become more empathetic.
    Participating in an orchestra enhances teamwork skills & discipline, and provides self-expression. I could go on.

    The way music affects me is something somewhat intangible; it is a thing within. It can completely lift my mood just listening to it. In all fairness, I may be a little different than the rest, as my father was a Professional Musician during the Big Band Era, and I grew up completely ensconced in music; I have the music in me.
    There is nothing like sitting down and playing an instrument – you can spend hours or a half a day lost in the pleasure. It renders a personal reward and satisfaction like no other, to master an instrument. And then, the enjoyment of playing with others – ahh, music.
    I cannot imagine my life without it.

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  17. 17. XavierKane 3:17 am 04/7/2014

    I believe music lessons will make people smarter only if they are receiving their music lesson from young age. Human mind works in a mysterious way. It can learn from many things and apply that learning at totally different situation. Music lesson not only makes you smarter but also make you more creative. You can compare two persons, out of which one of them has received musical training, by giving a task and both of them will solve it differently. Maybe the one who received music lesson will solve it in less time and in more efficient way.

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  18. 18. bbeshore 3:51 am 04/22/2014

    Music is a bilateral brain activity, so you are using much more of your brains resources in playing music, if done correctly. If you can carry over this discipline to other activities you will indeed learn much faster.

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