Music and intelligence

A parent's evidence-based guide

© 2008-2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Music and intelligence: Why music training, not passive listening, is the focus of recent interest

Everybody’s heard of the Mozart effect, 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, there's no evidence that passive listening can make you smarter in the long-term.

But what about taking an active role? Research indicates that music lessons change the course of brain development and -- just possibly -- influence children's success in other, non-musical tasks.

Music and intelligence:

How musical training shapes the brain

Brain scanning technologies have permitted neuroscientists to observe the activity of living brains, and the results are clear:

Musicians are different.

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).

And 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. Are these brain differences linked with differences in intelligence?

Maybe so.

Correlational studies have reported a number of advantages for musically-trained children, ranging from better verbal and mathematical skills to higher scores on tests of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and IQ (Fujioka et al 2006; Schellenberg 2006; Patel and Iverson 2007; Hanna-Pladdy and Mackay 2011).

But correlations don't prove causation, and there is reason to doubt that music training is responsible for these advantages.

Maybe parents with greater cognitive ability are more likely to enroll their kids in music lessons. Or maybe kids with higher ability 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 cognitive outcomes.

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 have been mixed.

Does music training cause improvements in non-musical intellectual ability?

Mixed evidence

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).

Another experiment 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).

More recently, researchers reported that 8-year-old children showed enhanced reading and pitch discrimination abilities in speech after 6 months of musical training. Kids in a control group (who took painting lessons instead) experienced no such improvements (Moreno et al 2009).

Other experimental interventions have bolstered the idea that music training boosts a student's ability to encode speech.  One study found that teens randomly assigned to receive musical training, performed better, two years later, on a task that required them to pick out speech sounds from background noise -- an ability that may help kids focus in noisy classrooms and other environments (Tierney et al 2013).

In another randomized study, economically disadvantaged elementary school students showed evidence of enhanced neural processing of speech after two years of training (Kraus et al 2014).

These outcomes support the idea that musical training causes modest improvements in non-musical cognitive ability. But there are counter-examples.

For instance, in a recent study of preschoolers, kids were tested for improvements in four areas--spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary--after 6 weeks of instruction. Kids who'd experienced music training performed no better than kids assigned to classes in visual arts (Mehr et al 2013).

That doesn't seem surprising. Six weeks is a very short time frame. But some long-term research has also failed to detect links between music and intelligence. When Eugenia Costa-Giomi (1999) tracked grade-school students for 3 years, she found no apparent academic advantage for children who'd been learning to play the piano.

Where does this leave us?

A priori, it's not unreasonable to think that serious music training might hone skills of relevance to non-musical cognition.

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 (Schellenberg 2005; Shlaug et al 2005).

But as E. Glenn Schellenberg has argued (2006), we need more research tracking long-term outcomes.

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."

The trained kids were expected to show differences in motor and auditory processing centers. The other changes were unexpected (Hyde et al 2009), but may relate to the brain's need to integrate information from various modalities (visual, motor, auditory, et cetera).

Schlaug and colleagues intend to track these kids for many years. For more information about their continuing research on music and intelligence, check out their website.

And click here 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 it seems clear that music training causes changes in the brain, and that serious students of music hone a variety of skills that could be relevant in other contexts.

Given evidence that certain games can enhance self-regulation and working memory, and even help dyslexic children learn to read, the notion that music training has transferable effects isn't all that far-fetched. 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, and all the satisfaction that brings.


You can help fuel your child's interest by sharing the world's best music with him. I've found a website, Classic Cat, 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.

Kraus N, Slater J, Thompson E, Hornickel J, Strait D, Nicol T and White-Schwoch T (in press). Music enrichment programs improve the neural encoding of speech in at-risk children. Journal of Neuroscience.

Mehr SA, Schachner A, Katz RC, Spelke ES. 2013. Two randomized trials provide no consistent evidence for nonmusical cognitive benefits of brief preschool music enrichment. PLoS One. 8(12):e82007.

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.

Tierney A, Krizman J, Skoe E, Johnston K, and Krus N. 2014. High school music classes enhance neural processing of speech. Frontiers in psychology. 4: 855.

Content of "Music and intelligence" last modified 3/14