Does Mozart make you brainier?

Can learning to play a musical instrument in childhood affect your intelligence?
16 December 2013

Interview with 

Samuel Mehr, Harvard University


Wolfgang Amadeus MozartChris - So first of all, where did this whole idea about Mozart, or learning the play musical instruments, learning to engage with classical music, might make you more intelligent, what's the background or basis to that?

Sam - Well, about 20 years ago, there was a paper published in the journal Nature that showed that listening to some Mozart music, a piano sonata improved adult's performance on an intelligence test.  So, it seemed that maybe listening to music might improve your cognitive skills.  This turned out to actually not be the case.  It turned out that the Mozart music just actually made people a little bit happier, a little bit more relaxed and that was what was causing them to do better on their test.  But this paper made quite a bit of press and everyone sort of became very incensed with the idea of a possible Mozart effect.  Even though that effect ended up being totally false, with all this press, came the possible idea that maybe sending your child to music lessons to play the piano or the violin, or to sing in a choir might also be connected with intelligence.  So, it goes back about 20 years.

Chris -   So, what was the outstanding question then that you were seeking to answer here?

Sam -   Well, it turns out that the question of whether children who attend music lessons have some sort of intelligence advantages or higher grades.  It's one that actually hasn't been tested very much in the academic press.  So, our question is simply, if you give children a particular type of music training, whether it's instrumental lessons or a class for music in school or the type of training that we use which was parents child music enrichment in young children in pre-schoolers.  If they get this type of training, do they show advantages on the cognitive assessments of above the level of their peers and who might have had a different type of class like an arts class or maybe no classes at all.

Chris -   I suppose that gets around the big question here which is, do people end up playing a musical instrument because they're academically more able in the first place, rather than actually playing the instrument and playing the music makes them better?

Sam -   So, that's a very, very important question.  It's a very widely held belief that music and intelligence are linked, that children who do music are better at math.  There's a really interesting problem here in the cognitive science and education literature which is the difference between correlation and causation.  So, a lot of studies have shown that if you take a group of musicians and you compare them to a group of non-musicians, the two groups differ in a lot of ways.  Not just the most obvious way which is that the musicians are better in music.  They also often find that the musicians have higher cognitive skills, they might have done better in school.  But it would be a very big mistake to conclude from that type of study that music makes children smarter.  That's a false conclusion because it could be that there's something else going on in the background that is also associated with musicians.  It could be that growing up to play music is also associated with growing up in a wealthy neighbourhood.  You have to be able to afford music lessons and people who grew up in wealthy neighbourhoods also tend to do better in school because they have better teachers and better classrooms, that type of thing.  So, what we need to do is what's called a randomised experiment and that's what we did in what a couple of other studies have done in the past.

Chris -   Tell us about the structure of that experiment, just very briefly.

Sam -   So, the way a randomised experiment works is you take a group of children and you randomly assign them to get something, the treatment, so your music lessons or something else.  So, no music lessons, you have an arts class or no class at all.  After a period of time when the classes are happening, you test them and see who does better.

Chris -   So, you recruited how many kids and what did you assess?

Sam -   So, we did two randomised experiments.  In the first study, we had 29 children and in the second study, we had 45 children.  Across the two experiments, children either received a parent child music enrichment class.  These were 4-year-old children, preschoolers and they either got that parent child music class or a parent child visual arts class, or no classes at all.  After 6 weeks of classes, so a short training period, we tested them in 4 different areas of cognition - their linguistic development, their early mathematical development, and then 2 types of spatial reasoning.

Chris -   What did you find?

Sam -   Our findings were a bit surprising especially for those who sort of have this engrained belief that music might make children smarter.  Taking the results of the two experiments together, we find no evidence that the music trained children had any advantage on any of the cognitive assessments that we gave.  Importantly, this does not mean that we proved that music doesn't make children smarter.  It could be that using different types of music training might show that effect.  It could be that using longer training might show that effect.  But the sort of important thing I think about our paper is that in addition to running these two experiments, we also took a very critical look at the previous literature and we found that only 5 other studies have done exactly this.  Only 5 studies have used a randomised experiment.  When we look at those studies together, the evidence is not so good for music makes children smarter.

Chris -   Could you not argue it comes down to what you defined as intelligence because one person might say, well actually, giving those children an insight into music and an appreciation for and an ability in the musical arena means they're more likely to go on to pursue musical instruments and be more creative later in life?  You've only looked in a very short period of time.

Sam - Absolutely.  So, I think when people say things like 'music makes children smarter', they're referring to a very specific thing which is intelligence quotient - so, IQ.  We didn't even measure IQ at our study.  We used specific measures of cognition, their linguistic development and mathematical development.  I think there's no question that music lessons improve children's musical skills.  I think there are obvious relations to children's creativity, and there's promise that's been shown in some studies that music lessons might be related to social development in some ways.  So yes, it's absolutely important to define what smarter means in that context.  Musically smarter I think is an obvious outcome of these lessons.


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