Music lessons don’t make kids smarter, study finds


Study authors declare that “teaching music with the sole intent of enhancing a child’s cognitive or academic skills may be pointless.”


LONDON — Parents who think guitar or piano lessons will help their child’s academic performance may end up singing the blues themselves, according to a surprising new study. Researchers from both Japan and England conclude that music lessons don’t offer any benefits regarding a child’s cognitive skills or grades in school.

Numerous previous research projects have investigated the possible connection between music lessons as a child and higher academic grades/cognitive skills. But all of those initiatives have inconclusive results at best. Still, the notion that musical training or lessons can help a child excel in other academic or developmental areas has persisted for decades.

It makes a certain degree of sense. Playing any musical instrument or reading musical notes certainly isn’t easy. Moreover, the skills that kids learn from music lessons, like concentration and diligence, can conceivably be applied to other areas of their lives.

So, in an effort to finally figure out if musical lessons really boost kids’ intelligence, researchers from Fujita Health University in Japan and the London School of Economics and Political Science analyzed pre-existing experimental evidence focusing on the influence of musical training on children’s intelligence and cognition.

In total, 54 previous studies conducted between 1986 and 2019 were included in the analysis. All of that data encompassed 6,984 children.

Benefits of music lessons overblown?

This investigation leaves little room for interpretation. Researchers conclude that music classes are “ineffective” at improving academic or cognitive capabilities. This holds true regardless of the child’s age, the amount of time he or she spent taking musical lessons, and skill type (verbal, non-verbal, etc).

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Breaking down the findings a bit further, researchers point to some differences between more complex studies and simpler research projects. For instance, studies that feature multiple active controls (comparing the grades of children enrolled in music lessons to those of kids taking ballet or playing sports) show absolutely no academic or cognitive impact associated with learning music.

Conversely, simpler studies that don’t include controls or randomize participants into different groups show some small impact.

“Our study shows that the common idea that ‘music makes children smarter’ is incorrect. On the practical side, this means that teaching music with the sole intent of enhancing a child’s cognitive or academic skills may be pointless,” says lead study author Giovanni Sala, of Fujita Health University, in a statement. While the brain can be trained in such a way that if you play music, you get better at music, these benefits do not generalize in such a way that if you learn music, you also get better at maths. Researchers’ optimism about the benefits of music training appears to be unjustified and may stem from misinterpretation of previous empirical data.”

“Music training may nonetheless be beneficial for children, for example by improving social skills or self-esteem. Certain elements of music instruction, such as arithmetical music notation could be used to facilitate learning in other disciplines,” adds co-study author Fernand Gobet, from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The study is published in Memory & Cognition.

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