Music and intelligence: Do music lessons improve cognitive skills?

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Music lessons can benefit a child's general academic skills, but so too can art lessons. So does music training deliver any special cognitive benefits? Kids hone auditory skills that can help them decipher speech. And new research hints that certain kinds of music training may boost math and thinking skills.

Here are the details.

How music 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).

Is it merely a question of genetics?

Maybe these brain differences are what lead people to study music in the first place. People don't develop more grey matter because they undergo musical training. They just happen to start out with more grey matter, and this gives them an advantage that makes musical training easier, or more enjoyable.

Can we attribute all brain differences to such pre-existing, individual variation?

That's a good question, and we have an answer. Experiments confirm that the brain changes in response to music training (Schlaug 2015).

For example, 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 develops differently in response to music training. But what do we know about links between music and intelligence?

First, we have the correlational evidence.

If you compare kids in the real world, children who study music tend to perform better academically.

They tend to have stronger verbal and mathematical skills. They tend to perform better on tests of working memory and cognitive flexibility. They even tend to have higher IQs (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 cognitive differences.

It's clear, for instance, that musical training is linked with affluence, and affluence gives kids many advantages for getting ahead in school.

It's also possible that parents with greater cognitive ability are more likely to enroll their kids in music lessons. And maybe kids with higher academic ability are more likely to seek out and stick with music lessons -- because they find the experience more rewarding (Schellenberg 2006).

To tease apart causation, we need an experimental approach. Ideally, we should begin with kids who have had no prior experience with music training. Then we should randomly assign some of these children to receive music lessons, and measure outcomes. How do they compare with kids who aren't musically trained?

When researchers have attempted such experiments, they have often reported that kids end up with modest improvements in general cognitive ability. Improvements like better scores on tests of attention, memory, planning, and verbal ability.

Thus, experiments support the idea that musical training can enhance the development of cognitive skills that aren't directly related to music-making. But keep in mind: Other types of cultural enrichment (like art classes) can have similar effects.

If we want to provide our children with "brainy" enrichment activities, musical training is just one of many.

So is there anything special about music training? Does musical training lead to bigger cognitive gains, for instance? Or help kids in ways that other cultural activities don't?

Back in 2004, E. Glenn Schellenberg attempted to answer this question. In a study of 144 primary school students, he 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).

A more recent study randomly assigned 230 primary school students to receive either

  • group classes in music fundamentals, including some limited experiences with playing musical instruments in the classroom;
  • visual arts training, including lessons in painting, sculpture, and art history; and
  • no special training or enrichment.

After two years, kids who'd received the visual arts lessons outperformed their peers on tests of visual-spatial memory. But kids who'd received musical training tended to have higher scores on tests of verbal intelligence and planned, systematic problem-solving (Jaschke et al 2018).

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

These studies lend credence to the notion that music training offers distinctive academic benefits. But there are numerous negative findings, too. And in a recent meta-analysis -- reviewing 54 studies published between 1986 and 2019 -- researchers found little or no evidence that musical training is superior to other types of cultural enrichment (Sala and Gobet 2020).

Still, there's reason to wonder. As noted above, one study found that children developed an enhanced ability to discriminate different pitches in speech. That makes sense, given the auditory nature of both speech and music. Isn't it possible that musical training boosts other auditory skills, auditory skills that could help kids perform well at school?

Maybe so. For instance, after two years of musical training, students have shown improvements in their ability to pick out speech sounds from background noise -- a skill that might help kids focus in noisy classrooms and other environments (Slater et al 2015; Tierney et al 2013).

And not all "musical training" is the same. Maybe music lessons provide greater cognitive benefits when kids learn to read music and play a musical instrument.

In many studies, researchers have tested only a rather casual form of music training -- training that we might characterize as "music appreciation" or "music sensitization." Kids learn a little about rhythm and music theory; they learn to identify the sounds of different musical instruments; they sing and clap together;  they get the chance to beat some drums, or play a melody on a recorder.

Such lessons can be enjoyable and beneficial. But how do they compare with more intense, rigorous training -- the kind of musical training students get when they learn  to read music, and play a complex musical instrument, like the violin?

Clara James and her colleagues recently investigated this question in an experiment involving 69 elementary school students.

Half the kids were randomly assigned to the sort of casual musical training mentioned above --  music sensitization classes. The remaining half was randomly assigned to the more focused, rigorous sort of musical training: Twice each week, they learned to play a string instrument in an orchestra class.

The researchers tested children at the beginning of the study, and again at the end. After two years of training, the kids who'd been assigned to orchestra class were ahead on a variety of measures. They experienced bigger improvements in "working memory, attention, processing speed, cognitive flexibility, matrix reasoning, sensorimotor hand function, and bimanual coordination"(James et al 2020).

So this study provides us with evidence that formal, rigorous music instruction -- learning to read music and play a string instrument -- has a bigger impact on general cognitive skills.

Where does this lead us?

Music training can bring us a lot of joy. It can deepen our understanding of one of humanity's greatest forms of intellectual expression.

As a bonus, musical training programs also appear to help kids improve certain non-musical, academic skills. But musical training isn't unique in this respect. Other cultural pursuits -- like art lessons -- can also give students an intellectual boost.

Does musical training offer any special cognitive advantages? That remains possible. Formal music training -- the sort that teaches kids how to read music and play a complex musical instrument -- requires kids to discriminate differences in pitch, and recognize distinct patterns of sound. It wouldn't be surprising if these skills led to enhanced perception of speech, and so far, studies support the idea.

Similarly, students of music are required to

  • focus attention for long periods of time;
  • decode a complex symbolic system (musical notation);
  • track and reproduce rhythms;
  • understand ratios and fractions (e.g., a quarter note is half as long as a half note); and
  • improvise within a set of musical rules.

If kids hone such skills, might not their improvements transfer to other domains, like language and mathematics (Schellenberg 2005; Shlaug et al 2005)? The study by Clara James and her colleagues suggests that a two year program of serious study might enhance working memory, attention, and problem solving skills.

And other researchers are testing to see if music reading lessons can help elementary school kids improve their understanding of ratios and fractions. The early results look promising (Azaryahu et al 2020).

So this remains an interesting area of research to follow. And meanwhile? We've got lots of good reasons to encourage kids to study music.

More reading about enhancing academic performance in children

You can impact your child's academic performance in a number of ways. For more information, check out these Parenting Science articles:

Heard about the "Mozart effect"? Wondering what the latest science tells us about that? Here's my take.

Copyright © 2006-2020 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.


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

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Content of "Music and intelligence" last modified 8/2020

Portions of this text derive from an earlier article written by the same author.

Title image of little girl at piano with adult by greenleaf123 / istock

image of little boy playing violin by Juhan Sonin / flickr