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The IQ in Music – Do Music Lessons For Your Kids Make Them Smarter?
Just listening to classical music – the so-called “Mozart effect” – doesn’t make you smarter. I have given the reasons for this conclusion elsewhere. In this article, we examine 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? The answer to this question is as interesting as the answer.
Why does this question interest you?
Here is an answer. Children have little free time to invest in extracurricular activities, and parents have to make choices between activities for their children. If the choice is between, say, ballet and music lessons, and music is known to increase intelligence but ballet isn’t, that 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 stronger basis to choose from.
How can we NOT answer the question: do music lessons improve IQ?
The question “Do music lessons make a child smarter?” is not something that can be answered by common sense and the facts of personal experience. It may be tempting to deduce from your observation that all the children you know who take music lessons do well in school, that these lessons should help them develop their intelligence and their academic success. But this conclusion is not justified. Why not? Because they are just as likely to do better in school and music because they belong to a certain socio-economic class where the average IQ is higher to start with. Children with high IQs are more likely than other children to take music lessons because more educated and wealthier parents tend to give music lessons to their children – it’s part of the culture of the more educated and easy to give music lessons. Not all well-educated and well-to-do parents, but a lot of them. But this does not necessarily mean that music lessons have an impact on the development of children’s intelligence. Many well-educated and affluent parents also buy certain brands of clothing for their children, but the clothes children wear do not make them smarter.
So we can’t try to determine whether taking music lessons improves IQ in this way.
How can we answer the question: do music lessons improve IQ?
To find the answer to this question, we have to do an experiment. We need to set up things like this: take a lot of kids from a variety of backgrounds and randomly assign (flip a coin) half of those kids to music lessons for a year, and the other half in another extracurricular activity for a year – for example ballet or football. We test both groups of children on an IQ test before class, then again after class, and see if there is a difference between the two groups. If there’s a difference – if those who took music lessons score higher on average on the IQ test – we know it’s not due to family background (because family background is mixed in such a way equal in both groups). If we find a difference, we will also be more convinced that the intelligence gain is specific to music and not to an extracurricular activity (be it music, drama, ballet, karate, or soccer). Essentially, by doing this kind of “critical experiment”, we make sure that we have identified the effect of music lessons on intelligence.
Schellenberg’s critical experience
In 2004, someone finally did this science experiment: Glenn Schellenberg of the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. He placed an ad in a local community newspaper, offering free weekly art classes for 6-year-olds for a year. 144 children were then randomly assigned to one of four different groups, with 36 children in each group. Group 1 received keyboard lessons, Group 2 received voice/singing lessons, Group 3 received drama lessons, and Group 4 had no extracurricular lessons. The instructors were trained professional women. Children in all groups took an intelligence test called WISC-III before and after the school year. The WISC-III is the most popular and widely used intelligence test for children. All four groups had the same average IQ level at the start of the experiment. The children in each group of course differed in their level of intelligence, but the average intelligence of each group was the same. This is obviously important for us in order to draw conclusions about the effects of different course types.
And what did Schellenberg find? Do music lessons increase IQ?
The first interesting finding is that all four groups of children showed an increase in IQ level after the end of the year, even the group that did not take any lessons. What explains this general increase in IQ for all children? An increase in IQ known to be a common consequence of entering primary school. Since all of these children started primary school during the period of the experiment, it is easy to explain this general increase in IQ as being due to simple school attendance.
But – and this is the main point – the two groups of music lessons had considerably biggest IQ gains than theater groups and “without classes”. We can conclude from these data that taking music lessons, but not acting lessons, resulted in intelligence gains in addition to the gains from attending school. The type of music lesson didn’t matter (whether keyboard or voice); both groups had the same average IQ score after one year of classes. And both music groups had 3 points higher IQ score compared to drama and n0-lessons groups which did not differ from each other in their IQ score.
This relative superiority of IQ in music bands was not limited to any particular aspect of intelligence – such as spatial intelligence – but was found in all but 2 of the 12 subtests of the WISC- intelligence test. III, across a wide range of cognitive functions. abilities that require intelligence. This benefited all subtests of so-called 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 seem to have a big effect, but there is a way of looking at this IQ gain that helps put it into perspective and helps us assess its significance. Compare it to the payoff of going to primary school first. The average IQ gain from going to school was about 4 points. The additional gain from taking music lessons (3 points) was therefore almost equal to the full experience of the school itself. This now looks like a pretty big effect.
What is special about the music?
We need to be clear on one thing. Schellenberg’s experiment shows that music lessons improve the IQ of six-year-olds. This does not tell us that music lessons improve the IQ of older children or adults unfortunately. The brains of six-year-olds are known to be highly “plastic,” meaning that these young brains can be shaped and reorganized to a large degree by experience. Older children and adults have less brain plasticity and one could predict that a year of music lessons in this case would have less impact on general intelligence – although we are not sure.
By taking music lessons, knowledge and skills related to music increase, which is important in itself. But what Schellenberg’s experiment shows is that on top of that, 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, memorizing extensive musical passages, learning various musical structures (e.g. scales, chords), and gradually mastering fine motor skills. It is unclear exactly which combination of these skills improves general intelligence, and further studies will need to investigate this question.
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