Music and intelligence: A guide for the science-minded
© 2008-2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Is there is link between music and intelligence?
Yes, there is.
Forget the Mozart effect. The real action seems to occur when children learn to play musical instruments.
Music and intelligence: The effects of passive listening
The Mozart effect doesn’t cause lasting improvements in IQ
Everybody’s heard of the
-—the notion that you can increase your intelligence by listening to Mozart’s music.
Experiments have reported that people enjoyed brief improvements in their visual-spatial skills immediately after listening to a Mozart sonata (Rauscher et al 1993; Hetland 2000).
However, the results have been inconsistent, with some labs failing replicate the effect. It's also unclear if it was really the music that was responsible for the temporary enhancement of intelligence.
It's plausible that people improved their performance because listening to music elevated their mood and left them feeling more alert (Schellenberg 2005).
And whatever the cause, it seems unlikely that passive listening can make you smarter in the long-term.
In the experiments cited above, the effect did not appear to last more than 10-15 minutes.
So if you’re looking for a way to boost your child’s intelligence, the Mozart effect is a bust.
Music might help prime people for concentrating on spatial tasks, and there is evidence that
kids who listen to music while they draw produce more creative artwork.
But that’s about it.
Taking music lessons, though...that’s another matter entirely. Research indicates that music lessons changes the course of brain development. And there is evidence that musical training can have a small, beneficial effect on non-musical intellectual performance.
Music and intelligence:
How musical training shapes the brain
Brain scanning technologies have permitted neuroscientists to test ideas about the link between music and intelligence. And the results are clear:
Musicians have distinctively different brains.
Their brains react differently to sound. For instance, in one study, people who played musical instruments as children showed more robust brainstem responses to sound than did non-musicians (Skoe and Kraus 2012).
Other studies have reported that kids assigned to receive musical training developed distinctive neural responses to music and speech -- evidence of more intense information processing that was linked with improvements in the discrimination of pitch and the segmentation of speech (Moreno et al 2009; Chobert et al 2012; François et al 2012).
But it's not just a matter of differences in brain activity. There are also differences in brain volume.
If you examine the brain of a keyboard player, you’ll find that the region of the brain that controls finger movements is enlarged (Pascual-Leone 2001).
Moreover, brain scans of 9- to 11-year old children have revealed that those kids who play musical instruments have significantly more grey matter volume in both the sensorimotor cortex and the occipital lobes (Schlaug et al 2005).
In fact, musicians have significantly more grey matter in several brain regions (Schlaug et al 2005), and the effects of music lessons seem to increase with the intensity of training.
One study compared professional keyboard players with amateurs. Although both groups had music training, the professionals practiced twice as much. The professionals also had significantly more grey matter volume in a number of brain regions (Gaser and Schlaug 2003).
In the genes?
It's not simply a case of genetics—-i.e., that people with more grey matter volume are more likely to become musicians. Research suggests that the brains of non-musicians change in response to musical training.
In one study, non-musicians were assigned to perform a 5-finger exercise on the piano for two hours a day. Within five days, subjects showed evidence of re-wiring. The size of the area associated with finger movements had become larger and more active (Pascual-Leone 2001)
So it's reasonable to think that the brain grows in response to music training. Does these brain differences reflect differences in intelligence?
In the study of 9 to 11-year olds, musicians performed better on several tests than did their non-musical peers. They scored significantly higher on tests of vocabulary and finger tapping. They also exhibited a strong, but statistically non-significant, trend towards better spatial and math skills (Schlaug et al 2005).
And other studies reveal a variety of notable--and statistically significant--differences in test scores between musicians and non-musicians.
Music and intelligence:
Musicians perform better on cognitive tasks
People with music training often outperform their non-musical peers on cognitive tasks (Schellenberg 2006).
For instance, a study of 4 to 6-year olds found that musically-trained kids performed better on a test of working memory (Fujioka et al 2006).
Other research (Schellenberg 2006; Patel and Iverson 2007) indicates that musicians perform significantly better on tests of
• Spatial-temporal skills
• Math ability
• Reading skills
• Verbal memory
• Phonemic awareness
Musically-trained people also perform better on general intelligence tests.
In a cross-sectional study of Canadian school children, E. Glenn Schellenberg (2006) found that kids who took music lessons had slightly higher IQs. The effects were general, cutting across several different intellectual abilities (e.g., verbal, mathematical, and temporal-spatial). Music lessons were associated with abilities associated with fluid intelligence, such as
• Working memory
• Perceptual organization
• Processing speed
They were also associated with increased verbal comprehension and better high school grades.
These differences remained significant after controlling for a child’s age, nonmusical activities, family income, and parent’s education.
Finally, a new study of older adults--aged 65-80--found a correlation between childhood music training and cognitive performance. The more years a person had spent playing an instrument, the better he performed on tests of word recall, visual (nonverbal) memory, and cognitive flexibility (Hanna-Pladdy and Mackay 2011).
Why might music lessons enhance intelligence?
Musicians tend to be smarter than average, which suggests the possibility that music training enhances intelligence. How would that work?
E. Glenn Schellenberg and other researchers offer several possibilities (Schellenberg 2005; Shlaug et al 2005). Maybe music training boosts non-musical intellectual performance by honing skills of general importance.
For instance, students of music are required to
• focus attention for long periods of time
• decode a complex symbolic system (musical notation)
• translate the code into precise motor patterns
• recognize patterns of sound across time
• discriminate differences in pitch
• learn rules of pattern formation
• memorize long passages of music
• track and reproduce rhythms
• understand ratios and fractions (e.g., a quarter note is half as long as a half note)
• improvise within a set of musical rules
If children improve these skills, they might find their improvements transfer to other domains, like language and mathematics.
But there is also the “killjoy” hypothesis--the idea that music lessons are the effect, not the cause, of higher IQs.
Music and intelligence: Is the link driven merely by prior ability?
Whether or not music lessons enhance intelligence, one thing seems a sure bet. Part of link between music training and intelligence can be explained by the prior abilities of the musician.
Maybe parents with higher IQs are more likely to enroll their kids in music lessons. Or maybe kids with higher IQs are more likely to seek out and stick with music lessons because they find music training more rewarding (Schellenberg 2006). Either way, this could explain the correlation between music training and IQ.
So the crucial question is this: How can we rule out the idea that the link between music and intelligence is entirely determined by prior ability? What's needed are controlled experiments, randomly assigning kids with no prior music training to receive lessons.
Several studies have pursued this approach, and the results support the idea that music training contributes to cognitive enhancements.
Evidence that music training is the cause—not merely the effect—of higher IQ
One study randomly assigned 4-year olds to receive either weekly keyboard lessons or a control condition for 6-8 months. The kids who received music training performed better on a test of spatial skills (Rauscher et al 1997). These results were replicated by other research (Rauscher 2002).
Another experimental study randomly assigned 6-year-olds to receive one of four treatments during the school year:
• Keyboard lessons
• Vocal lessons
• Drama lessons
• No lessons
By the end of the school year, all participants experienced a small increase in IQ. However, the kids who received music lessons showed significantly more improvement than the other groups did (Schellenberg 2004).
These results support the idea that musical training causes a modest improvement in IQ. But, as E. Glenn Schellenberg points out, we don’t know long the effect will last and at least one music training experiment has failed to find a link between music and intelligence (Costa-Giomi 1999; Schellenberg 2006).
One problem, says Schellenberg, is that a lot of people drop out of these experiments before they are completed. More long-term studies should help clear thing up.
One such study is being conducted by Gottfried Schlaug and his colleagues at the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.
These researchers are tracking the effects of music lessons--specifically, piano and violin lessons--on brain development and cognition.
Fifty kids, aged 5 to 7 years, began the study with no prior music training. Before starting music lessons, these kids were given brain scans and cognitive tests to establish baselines. Researchers are also following a control group, matched for age, socioeconomic status and verbal IQ.
Fifteen months into the study, the musically-trained kids showed greater improvement in finger motor skills and auditory discrimination skills.
Although there were no other behavioral differences between groups, the musicians also showed structural brain differences in
• regions linked with motor and auditory processing, and
• "various frontal areas, the left posterior peri-cingulate and a left middle occipital region" (Hyde et al 2009)
The trained kids were expected to show differences in motor and auditory processing centers. The other changes were unexpected, but may relate to the brain's need to integrate information from various modalities (visual, motor, auditory, et cetera).
Schlaug and colleagues will to track these kids for many years. For more information about their
continuing research on music and intelligence, check out their website.
to read about an experimental study that suggests 20 days of music training -- when combined with training for better executive function -- can enhance a child's self-control and verbal intelligence (Moreno et al 2011).
Music and intelligence: The bottom line
Nobody rules out the idea that genes may be responsible for much of the IQ advantage enjoyed by musicians. But researchers strongly suspect that music training is responsible for some of the effect. In the next few years, we may have definitive evidence on this point.
Meanwhile? I think there's good reason to offer music lessons to children in primary school. Cognitive benefits aside, we shouldn’t overlook the obvious: Music lessons are intrinsically rewarding. When kids learn to play a musical instrument, they are laying the groundwork for a lifetime’s appreciation of music.
You can help fuel your child's interest by sharing the world's best music with him. I've found a website,
where you can do this for free.
It's a catalog of over 4800 classical performances (many of them complete) that can be downloaded free and legally.
Best of all, the site is indexed by composer, performer, genres, and even instruments. So if your child wants to know what an oboe sounds like, you can quickly find and download Mozart's Quartet and Oboe for Strings in F major.
References: Music and intelligence
Chobert J, François C, Velay JL, and Besson M. 2012. Twelve Months of Active Musical Training in 8- to 10-Year-Old Children Enhances the Preattentive Processing of Syllabic Duration and Voice Onset Time. Cereb Cortex. 2012 Dec 12. [Epub ahead of print]
Costa-Giomi E. 1999. The effects of three years of piano instruction on children’s cognitive development. Journal of research in music education 47: 198-212.
François C, Chobert J, Besson M, and Schön D. 2012. Music Training for the Development of Speech Segmentation. Cereb Cortex. 2012 Jul 10. [Epub ahead of print]
Fujioka T, Ross B, Kakigi R, Pantev C, and Trainor LJ. 2006. One year of musical training affects development of auditory cortical-evoked fields in young children. Brain. 129(Pt 10):2593-608
Gaser C and Schlaug G. 2003. Brain structures differ between musicians and nonmusicians. Journal of Neuroscience 23: 9240-9245.
Hanna-Pladdy B, Mackay A. 2011. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology. 2011 Apr 4. [Epub ahead of print]
Hetland L. 2000. Listening to music enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: Evidence for the "Mozart effect." The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4): 105--148.
Hyde KL, Lerch J, Norton A, Forgeard M, Winner E, Evans AC, Schlaug G. 2009. The effects of musical training on structural brain development: a longitudinal study. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1169:182-6.
Moreno S, Marques C, Santos A, Santos M, Castro SL, and Besson M. 2009. Musical training influences linguistic abilities in 8-year-old children: more evidence for brain plasticity. Cereb Cortex. 19(3):712-23.
Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E. G., Cepeda, N. J., & Chau, T. 2011. Short-term music training enhances verbal intelligence and executive function. Psychological Science. Epub 2011 Oct 3.
Pascual-Leone A. 2001. The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930 (1): 315–329.
Patel AD and Iversen JR. 2007. The linguistic benefits of musical abilities. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11:369-372.
Rauscher FH, Shaw GL and Ky, KN. 1993. Music and spatial task performance. Nature 365: 611.
Rauscher FH, Shaw GL, Levine, LJ, Wright EL, Dennis WR, and Newcomb RL. 1997. Music training causes long-term enhancements of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning. Neurological Research 19: 2-8.
Rauscher FH. 2002. Mozart and the mind: Factual and fictional effects of musical enrichment. In J Aronson (ed), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors in education, pp. 267-278. San Diego: Academic Press.
Schellenberg EG. 2004. Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science 15(8) 511-514.
Schellenberg EG. 2005. Long-term positive associations between music lessons and IQ. Journal of Educational Psychology 98(2): 457-468.
Schellenberg EG. 2006. Long-term positive associations between music lessons and IQ. Journal of Educational Psychology 98(2): 457-468.
Schellenberg EG. 2011. Examining the association between music lessons and intelligence. Br J Psychol. 102(3):283-302.
Schlaug G, Norton A, Overy K and Winner E. 2005. Effects of music training on the child’s brain and cognitive development. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1060: 219-230.
Skoe E and Kraus N. 2012. A little goes a long way: how the adult brain is shaped by musical training in childhood. J Neurosci. 32(34):11507-10.
Content last modified 5/13