Harvard Study Claims Learning Music Doesn't Lead To Smarter Children
December 13, 2013

Harvard Study Claims Learning Music Doesn’t Lead To Smarter Children

Rebekah Eliason for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Many children who take music lessons benefit from the ability to express their creativity and the self-discipline and focus daily practice requires. In addition, children gain self-confidence from learning a new song or even mastering a new chord.

Parents often enroll their children in music lessons with the hope it will make them smarter and improve their IQ. In a new study, researchers from Harvard are now reporting that this commonly believed benefit is a myth and music does not boost a child’s intelligence.

Although everyone from art education advocates to parents trying to motivate their children to stay with their piano lessons have embraced this myth, two studies by Samuel Mehr, a Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral student, have indicated music has no effect on the cognitive abilities of small children. Mehr performed this study in the lab of Elizabeth Spelke, a Marshall L. Berkman Professor of Psychology.

Mehr said, “More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children's grades or intelligence. 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.”

Mehr explained the idea that music makes a person smarter can be traced back to one study published in Nature.

In that study, researchers discovered what they called the “Mozart effect.” This new effect was describing the phenomenon of participants who performed better on spatial tasks after listening to Mozart.

Although later the study was debunked, the idea that listening to music makes a person smarter has sunk into public imagination. This myth was further encouraged by several subsequent studies, which included various research focusing on the cognitive benefits of music lessons.

After reviewing the literature on dozens of studies exploring the link between music and cognitive studies, Mehr and his colleagues found only five studies that used randomized trials. It is widely accepted that randomized trials are the best method to determine causal effects of educational interventions on child development.

Out of five trials, there was only one which reported an unambiguously positive effect and it only showed a marginal increase of a 2.7 point IQ increase after one year of music lessons. That little of an increase is only barely statistically significant.

“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 his colleagues set out to explore the connection between music and cognition.

In this study, 29 parents, along with their four-year-old children, were selected from the Cambridge area. Initially, vocabulary tests were given to the children and music aptitude tests were given to the parents. Each person was randomly assigned to one of two classes. The first received music training and the second class focused on visual arts.

“We wanted to test the effects of the type of music education that actually happens in the real world, and we wanted to study the effect in young children, so we implemented a parent-child music enrichment program with preschoolers,” Mehr said. “The goal is to encourage musical play between parents and children in a classroom environment, which gives parents a strong repertoire of musical activities they can continue to use at home with their kids.”

One of the significant changes Mehr made from other studies was to control for the effect of different teachers. Unlike other studies who used two different teachers, Mehr taught the music class as well as the visual arts class. The researchers also used assessment tools designed for four specific areas: 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.”

Results from Mehr’s study showed zero evidence that music training leads to cognitive benefits. Both groups performed comparably on vocabulary and number estimation tasks. Between the two spatial tasks, children who received music training were slightly better at one while those who received visual arts training performed better at the other.

“Study 1 was very small – we only had 15 children in the music group and 14 in the visual arts,” Mehr said. “The effects were tiny and their statistical significance was marginal at best. So, we attempted to replicate the study, something that hasn't been done in any of the previous work.”

In order to check their results, Mehr and his colleagues designed a second study to see if the results would match. For this study, 45 parents and their children were recruited. Half of the participants received music training and the other half received no training.

Similarly to the first trial, there was no evidence found supporting music training as a cognitive benefit. Researchers even pooled the data from both studies to compare the effect of music training, visual arts training and no training. Taking into account all three factors, there was still no indication that one group was any better at performing tasks than the others.

“There were slight differences in performance between the groups, but none were large enough to be statistically significant,” Mehr said. “Even when we used the finest-grained statistical analyses available to us, the effects just weren't there.”

Although results from the study are debunking the myth that music lessons may be a shortcut to educational success, Mehr explained there is still significant value in music education.

“There's a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits,” he 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.

“Music is an ancient, uniquely human activity – the oldest flutes that have been dug up are 40,000 years old, and human song long preceded that,” he continued. “Every single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach this to our children.”

This article was published December 11 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.