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Can Musical Training Improve Children’s Cognitive Ability?

Child and pianoIt seems almost everyone has heard about “music can make you smarter”. However, Samuel Mehr and colleagues from Harvard Graduate School of Education recently found that musical training can’t enhance children’s cognitive ability. The results have been published on PLoS ONE.

  “More than 80% of American adults believe that music improves children’s grades and intelligence,” Mehr said. “Even in the scientific community, there is a general belief that music is of great importance for these extrinsic reasons. However, there is little evidence supporting the idea that musical trainings enhance children’s cognitive development.”

The common notion that music can make someone smarter can largely be traced to a single study published in Nature. In the study, researchers identified the so-called “Mozart effect”, which claimed that after listening to music, the test subjects performed better on spatial tasks. Although the study was debunked later, the notion that listening to music can make someone better became firmly embedded in public imagination, and encouraged a lot of follow-up studies, including several that focused on the cognitive benefits of musical trainings.

Randomized trial is the gold standard for determining causal effects of educational interventions on child development. However, when Mehr and co-workers reviewed literatures on whether and how music and cognitive ability might be connected, they found that only five studies used randomized trials. Among them, only one presented an unambiguously positive influence and the effect was so small – just 2.7 point increase in IQ after one year of music lessons, which was barely sufficient to be statistically significant.

To investigate the connection between cognition and music, the researchers conducted two experiments. They recruited 29 parents and 4-year-old children from the Cambridge area. After initial vocabulary tests for the children and music aptitude tests for the parents, each of the children was randomly assigned to one of two classes – one with music training and the other one focused on visual arts.

 Music and visual arts

In Mehr’s first experiment, the experimental group and the control group were assigned to music training and visual arts training and Mehr was the teacher for both classes.*Image source:shutterstock.

“We wanted to examine the effects of the type of music education that happens actually in real world, and we would like to study the influence in young children, so we employed a parent-child music enrichment program with preschoolers,”Mehr explained. “The goal is to encourage musical play between parents and children in a classroom environment, giving parents a strong repertoire of musical activities that they can continue to use with kids at home.”

Mehr subtly controlled the effect of different teachers – he taught both the music and the visual arts classes. The study assessed four areas of cognition: vocabulary, mathematics and two spatial tasks. “We tested four specific domains of cognition instead of using something in general,” Mehr said. “Since these tests are more sensitive than those general intelligence tests, we should be able to detect it better than in previous researchers if there really is an effect of musical training on children’s cognition.”

The two groups performed comparably on vocabulary and number-estimation tasks, however, the assessment showed that children received musical training exhibited slightly better ability on one spatial task, while those who received visual arts class performed better on the other.

As the first study had a small sample size, the researchers conducted another experiment. This time, they recruited and designed a study on 45 parents and children, half of whom received no training and half of whom received music training. Just as the results obtained in the first study, there was no significant evidence supporting music training provided any cognitive benefits. The researchers then pooled results from both studies and discovered that there was no sign that any group from the no training, music training, and visual arts training, outperformed the others.

While the results suggest studying music might not be a shortcut to educational success, Mehr said there is still substantial value in music education. No matter whether music can improve cognitive ability of children, music is significantly important for human. “Every single culture has its own music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human,” Mehr said.