The IQ in Music - Do Music Lessons For Your Kids Make Them
Smarter? by M A Smith
Why is this question of interest?
Here is one answer. Children have limited free time to invest into extra-curricular
activities, and parents have to make choices between activities for their children. If
the choice is between, for example, ballet and music lessons, and music is known to
increase intelligence but ballet is not, this might be reason enough to choose music
over ballet. Ballet may be good for reasons that music may not be - for motor
coordination skills, for example - but at least now the parent has a firmer basis on
How can we CANNOT answer the question: Do music lessons improve IQ?
The question 'do music lessons make a child smarter?' isn't something that can be
answered through common sense and the facts of personal experience. It may be
tempting to reason from your observation that all the children you know who take
music lessons are doing well at school, that these lessons must be helping them
develop their intelligence and school success. But this conclusion isn't justified. Why
not? Because it's just as likely that they are both doing better at school and taking
music because they are from a certain socioeconomic class where the average IQ is
higher to begin with. Children with high IQs are more likely than other children to take
music lessons because better educated and more affluent parents tend to provide
music lessons for their children - it's part of the culture of the more educated and
affluent to provide music lessons. Not all educated and affluent parents, but a lot of
them. But this doesn't necessarily mean that music lessons have any impact on the
childrens' developing intelligence. Many educated and affluent parents also buy certain
brands of clothes for their children, but the clothes children wear don't make them
So we cannot go about trying to figure out whether taking music lessons improves
IQ like this.
How we CAN answer the question: Do music lessons improve IQ?
To find out the answer to this question we need to do an experiment. We need to
set things up like this: take a lot of children from a variety of backgrounds and
randomly assign (by the flip of a coin) half of these children to music lessons for a
year, and half to some other extracurricular activity for a year - for instance ballet, or
football. We test both groups of children on an IQ test before the lessons, and then
again after the lessons, and see if there is a difference between the two groups. If
there is a difference - if those who took music lessons on average score higher on
the IQ test - we know that it's not due to family background (because family
backgrounds are mixed evenly across the two groups). If we find a difference we will
also be more confident that the intelligence gain is specific to music and not any extra
curricular activity (whether music, drama, ballet, karate or soccer). In essence, by
doing this kind of 'critical experiment' we make sure that we've pinpointed the effect
of the music lessons on intelligence.
Schellenberg's critical experiment
In 2004 someone did finally this scientific experiment: Glenn Schellenberg from the
Department of Psychology, University of Toronto. He put an advertisement in a local,
community newspaper, offering free, weekly arts lessons for 6 year olds for a year.
144 children were then assigned randomly to one of four different groups, with 36
children in each group. Group 1 was given keyboard lessons, Group 2 was given
voice/singing lessons, Group 3 was given drama lessons, and Group 4 had no
extra-curricular lessons. The instructors were trained, female professionals. The
children in all groups took an intelligence test called the WISC-III both before and
after the year of lessons. The WISC-III is the most highly regarded and widely used
intelligence test for children. All four groups had the same average IQ level at the
start of the experiment. Children in each group differed in their intelligence level of
course, but the average intelligence of each group was the same. This is obviously
important for us to draw any conclusions about the effects of the different types of
And what did Schellenberg find? Do music lessons increase IQ?
The first interesting finding was that all four groups of children showed an increase in
IQ level after the year was up, even the group that took no lessons whatsoever.
What explains this general increase in IQ for all children? An increase of IQ known to
be a usual consequence of entering grade school. Since all these children started
grade school during the period of the experiment, it is easy to explain this general IQ
increase as due to simple attendance at school.
But - and this is the crux - the two music lesson groups had significantly greater gains
in IQ than the drama and 'no-lesson' groups. We can conclude from this data that
taking music lessons, but not drama lessons, caused gains in intelligence in addition
to the gains obtained by attending school. The type of music lesson didn't matter
(whether keyboard or voice); both groups had the same average IQ score after a
year of lessons. And both music groups had a 3 point higher IQ score compared to
the drama and n0-lesson groups who didn't differ from each other in their IQ score.
This relative superiority of IQ in the music groups was not confined to one particular
aspect of intelligence - such as spatial intelligence - but was found in all but 2 of the
12 subtests of the WISC-III intelligence test, across a broad range of cognitive
abilities that require intelligence. It benefited all subtests of what is known as fluid
intelligence - the ability to reason and find relationships in a way that does not
depend on background knowledge.
The size of the effect: How should we judge it?
3 IQ points doesn't sound like a big effect, but there is a way of looking at this gain in
IQ that help put it in perspective and help us evaluate its importance. Compare it to
the gain of first going to grade school. The average IQ gain of going to school was
about 4 points. The additional gain of taking music lessons (3 points) was, therefore,
nearly as much as the full experience of school itself. This is now looking like quite a
What is special about music?
We need to be clear about one thing. Schellenberg's experiment shows that music
lessons improve IQ for six year olds. It does not tell us that music lessons improve
IQ for older children or for adults unfortunately. Six year old's brains are known to be
highly 'plastic' - that is, these young brains can be shaped and reorganised to a large
extent by experience. Older children and adults have less brain plasticity and it might
be predicted that a year of music lessons in this case would have less of an impact
on general intelligence - although we don't know for sure.
In taking music lessons, knowledge and skill relating to music increases, and this is
important in itself. But what Schellenberg's experiment shows is that in addition to
this, general cognitive ability is also trained and improved - indirectly. Taking music
lessons is good 'brain training' at this age! Music lessons involve long periods of
focused attention, daily practice, reading musical notation, memorization of extended
musical passages, learning about a variety of musical structures (e.g., scales,
chords), and progressive mastery fine-motor skills. It is not known exactly which
combination of these skills improves general intelligence, and further studies will have
to investigate this question.
About The Author
Dr Mark A. Smith, is a cognitive neuroscientist, author and entrepreneur. Between
2000 and 2003 he was a Lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology at
the University of Cambridge. His most recent position has been as Assistant
Professor at Bilkent University, Turkey. His current research is in fluid intelligence and
its evolution in human cognition. He has recently set up a cognitive interventions
laboratory for experimental research into brain training tools and brain nutrition.
To find out more of what is known about intelligence and how to increase IQ, visit his
Simply listening to classical music -
the so-called 'Mozart effect' - does
not make you smarter. I have
presented the grounds for this
conclusion elsewhere. In this article
we take a look at the question, "Do
music lessons make a child smarter?
Do music lessons have 'collateral
benefits' that extend to non-musical
areas of intelligence? Do music
lessons increase a child's overall IQ
level, making them better at
reasoning, math and language
comprehension?" How this question
has been answered is as interesting
as what the answer turns out to be.
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