No cognitive benefits in music lessons

Study Hall presents the results of scientific studies as described by researchers and their institutions. This report is from Harvard University.

Children get plenty of benefits from music lessons: Learning to play an instrument can be a great outlet for a child’s creativity, and the repeated practice can teach much-needed focus and discipline. What’s more, the payoff, whether it’s learning a new song or just mastering a new chord, is often a boost of self-esteem.

But Harvard researchers now say that one oft-cited benefit — that studying music improves intelligence — is a myth.

Though it has been embraced by everyone from advocates for arts education to parents hoping to encourage their kids to stick with piano lessons, a pair of studies found no effect of music training on the cognitive abilities of young children.

“More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children’s grades or intelligence,” Samuel Mehr, a Harvard graduate student who is lead author of the studies, said. “But there is very little evidence supporting the idea that music classes enhance children’s cognitive development.”

The notion that music training can make someone smarter, Mehr said, can largely be traced to a single study published in the 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, Mehr and colleagues found just five studies that used randomized trials. Only one showed an unambiguously positive effect, and it was so small that it was barely enough to be statistically significant.

To explore the connection between music and cognition, Mehr and colleagues recruited 29 parents and 4-year-old children. 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.

While both groups performed comparably on the vocabulary and number estimation tasks, children who received music training performed slightly better at one spatial task; those who received visual arts training performed better at the other.

To replicate the effect, Mehr and colleagues designed a second study that recruited 45 parents and children. Again there was no evidence that music training offered any cognitive benefit.