Tuning Up Young Minds: Music lessons give kids a small IQ advantage

Researchers have debunked the much-publicized idea, known as the Mozart effect, that listening to classical music improves children’s ability to reason about spatial relations and other nonverbal tasks. Learning to play a musical instrument or to sing, however, may indeed give youngsters an intellectual edge over their peers, a new study suggests.

Six-year-olds who took weekly piano or singing lessons throughout the school year exhibited an average IQ increase of 7.0 points, says psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga. Other 6-year-olds who either took weekly drama lessons or received no extracurricular lessons displayed an average IQ rise of 4.3 points, Schellenberg reports in the August Psychological Science.

The small, but statistically significant IQ advantage for music students became apparent from standardized intelligence tests administered at the start and end of first grade. The apparent benefit of the musical training showed up on the test’s verbal and nonverbal sections.

For his study, Schellenberg tracked 132 first graders, who were randomly assigned to one of the four groups. Teachers at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music provided the free piano, singing, or drama lessons. Extracurricular activities such as chess lessons or science programs, in which none of the 132 students was involved, may also nudge IQ upward, Schellenberg theorizes.

The children’s scores on a standard academic achievement test further reflected a musically inspired advantage.

“Music lessons involve experiences that could have a positive effect on cognition, particularly during childhood, when brain development is . . . sensitive to environmental influence,” Schellenberg says. For instance, musical training requires kids to pay attention for long periods, to read notation, to memorize extended passages, and to master fine-motor skills.

A different benefit emerged for the kids given drama lessons. According to parents’ ratings, those children improved their social skills by the end of first grade, whereas the rest showed no such changes.

The additional IQ boost reported for children who took music lessons is so small that it probably wouldn’t yield any dramatic upgrades in their school performance, remarks psychologist Ellen Winner of Boston College.

“We cannot say from this study what aspects of music education led to this modest improvement in IQ,” she adds. Further investigations will be required to explore the influence on intelligence of specific facets of music training. Winner also notes that the IQ disparities Schellenberg measured could derive from differences in how well the music teachers and drama teachers inspired their students to learn.

Winner and neurologist Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard Medical School in Boston are looking to resolve some of these issues in an ongoing long-term study that’s tracking the brains and intellectual development of children as they learn to play musical instruments.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.