Music won’t make your kid smarter

Shereen Dindar
Contributing Writer
Shine On

Bad news for parents itching to turn their babies into geniuses.

In addition to the blow that Baby Einstein videos won't make your kid any smarter, it appears music lessons won't either.

An intriguing new study suggests the belief that music education improves children's intelligence is a myth.

"More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children's grades or intelligence," says lead researcher Samuel Mehr from the education department at Harvard University. "Even in the scientific community, there's a general belief that music is important for these extrinsic reasons. But there is very little evidence supporting the idea that music classes enhance children's cognitive development."

The myth can be traced to a single study from 1993 that was later debunked. At the time, researchers identified what they called the "Mozart effect," coined after participants who listened to music were believed to have performed better on spatial tasks.

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However, Mehr and his team did an analysis of dozens of past studies linking musical training and cognitive performance. They discovered that only five of them used randomized trials, the gold standard for determining causal effects of educational interventions on child development. Of those five studies, there was no statistically significant intellectual benefit derived from music education.

"The experimental work on this question is very much in its infancy, but the few published studies on the topic show little evidence for 'music makes you smarter,'" Mehr says.

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In order to dig further into the question of musical training and intellectual benefits, Mehr and his team conducted two randomized trials involving parents and their four-year-old children.

One study compared kids who took music classes against those who took visual art classes and the other study compared music classes against no music classes.

Researchers tested the children when the classes ended for cognitive skills in spatial, linguistic and numerical reasoning, but found no differences among the groups.

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The results remained consistent even after taking into consideration the parent's musical aptitude.

"There were slight differences in performance between the groups, but none were large enough to be statistically significant," Mehr says. "Even when we used the finest-grained statistical analyses available to us, the effects just weren't there."

But does this new research mean parents should simply give up on music lessons all together? Mehr says, no.

"We don't teach kids Shakespeare because we think it will help them do better on the SATs. We do it because we believe Shakespeare is important."