The popular belief that studying music improves intelligence is just a myth, Harvard scientists have found.
Researchers found that music training has no effect on the cognitive abilities of young children.
“More than 80 per cent of American adults think that music improves children’s grades or intelligence,” said Samuel Mehr, a Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral student working in the lab of Marshall L Berkman Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Spelke.
“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 said.
The notion that music training can make someone smarter, Mehr said, can largely be traced to a single study published in journal Nature.
In it, researchers identified what they called the “Mozart effect” – after listening to music, test subjects performed better on spatial tasks.
Though the study was later debunked, the notion that simply listening to music could make someone smarter became firmly embedded in the public imagination.
Though dozens of studies have explored whether and how music and cognitive skills might be connected, when Mehr and colleagues reviewed the literature they found just five studies that used randomised trials.
Of the five, only one showed an unambiguously positive effect, and it was so small – just a 2.7 point increase in IQ after a year of music lessons – that it was barely enough to be statistically significant.
To explore the connection between music and cognition, researchers recruited 29 parents and four-year-old kids.
After initial vocabulary tests for the children and music aptitude tests for the parents, each were randomly assigned to one of two classes – one where they would receive music training, or another that focused on visual arts.
Among the key changes Mehr and colleagues made from earlier studies were controlling for the effect of different teachers – unlike other studies, Mehr taught both music and visual arts classes – and using assessment tools designed to test four specific areas of cognition, vocabulary, mathematics, and two spatial tasks.