Though you’ll never hear her tell you, Greta is an excellent musician. She’s a brilliant English horn and oboe player, and she can also handle the piano keyboard. When a nonmusician hears her play, they’ll often tell her how they wished their parents had made them practice when they were younger (unfortunately, our kids Jim and Nora don’t seem to appreciate this logic when we tell them it’s time to practice!). Everyone appreciates a good musician, but if the responses of our own children are any indication, few of us are willing to put in the practice it takes to learn to perform well.
We all seem to have an intuitive sense that learning to play music is “good for you,” but what does the research say? Many studies have indicated that there is a correlation between music lessons such positive traits as memory, mathematics achievement, and even reading ability, but does this correlation result from the music lessons themselves, or simply being fortunate enough to have parents that make you practice? Maybe parents who make their kids practice also put more emphasis on doing homework. Maybe musical ability is related to general intelligence—so it’s the reading and math skills that make good musicians, and not the other way around.
E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto developed a study to try to find a causal link between music lessons and intelligence (“Music Lessons Enhance IQ”, Psychological Science, 2004). In his experiment, six-year-olds were randomly selected to participate in keyboard, voice, and drama lessons for one year and compared with a group of kids who took no lessons. All the children took IQ tests at the beginning and end of the study. Since the children were selected randomly, there was no chance that the parents’ influence would account for the difference between kids. The following chart shows the change in the each group’s IQ over the course of the study:
All children participating in the study showed a rise in IQ, which Schellenberg attributes to the fact that they were all just starting kindergarten (and notice that this component of the IQ increase is bigger than any other effect). However, the kids who took music lessons did show a significantly greater IQ rise than both the kids in drama lessons or the kids with no lessons. The fact that taking drama lessons does not also increase IQ shows that the type of lessons matter: just any lessons outside of school won’t help. So it appears that music lessons aren’t merely valuable for teaching musical skills; they also transfer that benefit onto general intelligence.
It’s important to note that “intelligence” as measured by IQ tests isn’t the only worthwhile ability. The children in drama class, for example, demonstrated improvements in adaptive social behavior during the same period (and this was the only group with such an increase). This type of behavior, as noted in a recent Cognitive Daily article, can lead to improved academic achievement later in school.