Cognitive Daily

Music and IQ

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.


  1. #1 Xerxes
    June 28, 2005

    Would it kill people to put error bars on their graphs? It’s pretty hard to tell if a 3 point difference is meaningful when you don’t give any indication of the uncertainty of the measurements.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    June 28, 2005


    We’ve gone with the assumption that simpler is better here—we’re assuming that a decent percentage of our audience would be confused by error bars—but I’d love to hear arguments to the contrary.

    For what it’s worth, the difference between the music and non-music groups was significant, p < 0.05. There was no significant difference between the separate music groups or the drama group and the no lesson group.

  3. #3 Geoff Cumming
    June 28, 2005

    You may know that in psychology there is a long-standing debate about statistical significance testing, including p values, and whether other techniques, especially confidence intervals, should be used more widely. My view is that CIs shown on graphs can, in many simple situations, give better communication of research results. And that CIs, rather than standard error (SE) bars should be shown in graphs. Tho’ there are problems because folk have a range of misconceptions about CIs and what conclusions can justifiably be drawn from them. There is more in this article:
    Cumming, G. & Finch, S. (2005) Inference by eye. Confidence intervals and how to read pictures of data. American Psychologist, 60, 170-180.
    It can be downloaded from:

  4. […] he reading and math skills that make good musicians, and not the other way around. Again, this article goes to values I have deeply internalized since formati […]

  5. #5 Neil Thomason
    June 29, 2005

    Confidence Intervals appear to be easily understood. After all, even tabloid newspapers report their polling results using them. The reason is the same reason that the American Psychological Association has called for CIs in its journals—without them people are very likely to seriously misunderstand what the graph shows.

  6. #6 colin
    July 8, 2005

    By concentrating mainly on IQ scores, this study makes it seem that drama classes are useless. I’d be curious how drama classes effect ones intrapersonal/extrapersonal social intellegence.

  7. #7 dylanSnow
    July 9, 2005

    I’d be curious to see if the increase would only show up in kids. Would the lessons have a similar effect with adults? For example, I took no music lessons until I was 16 (acoustic guitar). That is a time in my life that I noticed I my thinkin’ skills had improved.
    …however, I also started to drive a car then too.

    Another interesting study comparison would be with foreign lanagauge lessons.

  8. #8 nighthawk808
    September 30, 2006

    OK, so we know it has a temporary effect. What are the differences in IQ five years later? Ten? Twenty?

New comments have been disabled.