Music and intelligence: A guide for the science-minded parent

An informative article from Read the original article here. This article is © 2008-2011 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved.

Is there is link between music and intelligence?

Yes, there is.

Forget the Mozart effect.

The real action seems to occur when children learn to play a musical instrument.

Music and intelligence:

The Mozart effect doesn’t cause lasting improvements in IQ

Everybody’s heard of the Mozart effect -—the notion that you can increase your intelligence by listening to Mozart’s music.

Experiments have revealed that people sometimes enjoy a brief improvement in visual-spatial skills immediately after listening to a Mozart sonata (Rauscher et al 1993; Hetland 2000).

However, the results have been inconsistent, with some labs reporting that they were unable to reproduce the effect.

It’s also unclear if it’s really the music that is responsible for the temporary enhancement of intelligence. It seems more likely that people improve their performance because listening to music elevates their mood and leaves them feeling more alert (Schellenberg 2005).

Most importantly, the effects do not appear to last more than 10-15 minutes.

So if you’re looking for a way to boost your child’s intelligence, the Mozart effect is a bust.

Music might help prime people for concentrating on spatial tasks, and

there is evidence that kids who listen to music while they draw produce more creative artwork.

But that’s about it.

Taking music lessons, though…that’s another matter entirely.

Music and intelligence:

How musical training shapes the brain

Brain scanning technologies have permitted neuroscientists to test ideas about the link between music and intelligence.

And some of the results are clear:

Musicians have distinctively different brains.

For instance, 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).

In the genes?

It’s not simply a case of genetics—-i.e., that people with more grey matter volume are more likely to become musicians. Research suggests that the brains of non-musicians change in response to musical training.

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 grows in response to music training. Does these brain differences reflect differences in intelligence?

Maybe so.

In the study of 9 to 11-year olds, musicians performed better on several tests than did their non-musical peers. They scored significantly higher on tests of vocabulary and finger tapping. They also exhibited a strong, but statistically non-significant, trend towards better spatial and math skills (Schlaug et al 2005).

And other studies reveal a variety of notable–and statistically significant –differences in test scores between musicians and non-musicians.

Music and intelligence:

Musicians perform better on cognitive tasks

People with music training often outperform their non-musical peers on cognitive tasks (Schellenberg 2006).

For instance, a study of 4 to 6-year olds found that musically-trained kids performed better on a test of working memory (Fujioka et al 2006).

Other research indicates that musicians perform significantly better on tests of


• Spatial-temporal skills

• Math ability

• Reading skills

• Vocabulary

• Verbal memory

• Phonemic awareness


(For reviews, see Schellenberg 2006 and Patel and Iverson 2007).


Musically-trained people perform better on general intelligence tests.

In a cross-sectional study of Canadian school children, E. Glenn Schellenberg (2006) found that kids who took music lessons had slightly higher IQs. The effects were general, cutting across several different intellectual abilities (e.g., verbal, mathematical, and temporal-spatial). Music lessons were associated with abilities associated with fluid intelligence, such as


• Working memory

• Perceptual organization

• Processing speed


They were also associated with increased verbal comprehension and better high school grades.

These differences remained significant after controlling for a child’s age, nonmusical activities, family income, and parent’s education.

Finally, a new study of older adults–aged 65-80–found a correlation between childhood music training and cognitive performance. The more years a person had spent playing an instrument, the better he performed on tests of word recall, visual (nonverbal) memory, and cognitive flexibility (Hanna-Pladdy and Mackay 2011).

Why would music lessons enhance intelligence?

As noted by Schellenberg (2005) and other researchers (Shlaug et al 2005), a variety of explanations might account for it. For example, music lessons might enhance intelligence because they train kids to


• focus attention for long periods of time

• decode a complex symbolic system (musical notation)

• translate the code into precise motor patterns

• recognize patterns of sound across time

• learn rules of pattern formation

• memorize long passages of music

• understand ratios and fractions (e.g., a quarter note is half as long as a half note)

• improvise within a set of musical rules



All of these explanations have in common the idea that music lessons cause higher IQs.

But there is also the “killjoy” hypothesis–the idea that music lessons are the effect, not the cause, of higher IQs.


Music and intelligence: Is the link genetic?

Maybe parents with higher IQs are more likely to enroll their kids in music lessons. Or maybe kids with higher IQs are more likely to seek out and stick with music lessons because they find music training more rewarding (Schellenberg 2006).

The best way to rule out the inheritance explanation is to perform controlled experiments, randomly assigning kids with no prior music training to receive lessons.

Several studies have pursued this approach. The results are intriguing.

Evidence that music training is the cause—not merely the effect—of higher IQ

One study randomly assigned 4-year olds to receive either weekly keyboard lessons or a control condition for 6-8 months. The kids who received music training performed better on a test of spatial skills (Rauscher et al 1997). These results were replicated by other research (Rauscher 2002).

Another experimental study 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 an increase in IQ. However, the kids who received music lessons showed significantly more improvement than the other groups did (Schellenberg 2004)

These results support the idea that musical training causes improvement in IQ. But, as E. Glenn Schellenberg points out, we don’t know long the effect will last and at least one music training experiment has failed to find a link between music and intelligence (Costa-Giomi 1999; Schellenberg 2006).

One problem, says Schellenberg, is that a lot of people drop out of these experiments before they are completed. More long-term studies should help clear thing up.

One such study is being conducted by Gottfried Schlaug and his colleagues at the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.

These researchers are tracking the effects of music lessons–specifically, piano and violin lessons–on brain development and cognition.

Fifty kids, aged 5 to 7 years, began the study with no prior music training. Before starting music lessons, these kids were given brain scans and cognitive tests to establish baselines. Researchers are also following a control group, matched for age, socioeconomic status and verbal IQ.

One year into the study, the musically-trained kids already showed greater improvement in fine motor skills and auditory discrimination skills. Although there were no other statistically significant differences between groups, the musicians also showed trends for

• a greater increase in grey matter volume, and

• greater improvement on verbal, visual-spatial and math tests

Schlaug and colleagues are betting that these trends will become statistically significant over time (Schlaug et al 2005). They’ll continue to track these kids for many years. For more information about their continuing research on music and intelligence, check out their website.

And click here to read about a new experimental study that suggests music training fosters self-control and verbal intelligence in children (Moreno et al 2011).

Music and intelligence: The bottom line

Nobody rules out the idea that genes may contribute to some of the IQ advantage enjoyed by musicians. But researchers strongly suspect that music training is responsible for some of the effect. In the next few years, we may have definitive evidence on this point.

Meanwhile? I don’t know about you, but I’m enrolling my kids in music lessons. I think music lessons should be offered to every student in primary school. The evidence linking music and intelligence is too strong to ignore.

And besides—-we shouldn’t overlook the obvious: Music lessons are intrinsically rewarding. When kids learn to play a musical instrument, they are laying the groundwork for a lifetime’s appreciation of music.


You can help fuel your child’s interest by sharing the world’s best music with him. I’ve found a wonderful 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.

Google advertisements

References: Music and intelligence

Costa-Giomi E. 1999. The effects of three years of piano instruction on children’s cognitive development. Journal of research in music education 47: 198-212.

Fujioka T, Ross B, Kakigi R, Pantev C, and Trainor LJ. 2006. One year of musical training affects development of auditory cortical-evoked fields in young children. Brain. 129(Pt 10):2593-608

Gaser C and Schlaug G. 2003. Brain structures differ between musicians and nonmusicians. Journal of Neuroscience 23: 9240-9245.

Hanna-Pladdy B, Mackay A. 2011. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology. 2011 Apr 4. [Epub ahead of print]

Hetland L. 2000. Listening to music enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: Evidence for the “Mozart effect.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4): 105–148.

Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E. G., Cepeda, N. J., & Chau, T. 2011. Short-term music training enhances verbal intelligence and executive function. Psychological Science. Epub 2011 Oct 3.


Pascual-Leone A. 2001. The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930 (1): 315–329.

Patel AD and Iversen JR. 2007. The linguistic benefits of musical abilities. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11:369-372.

Rauscher FH, Shaw GL and Ky, KN. 1993. Music and spatial task performance. Nature 365: 611.

Rauscher FH, Shaw GL, Levine, LJ, Wright EL, Dennis WR, and Newcomb RL. 1997. Music training causes long-term enhancements of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning. Neurological Research 19: 2-8.

Rauscher FH. 2002. Mozart and the mind: Factual and fictional effects of musical enrichment. In J Aronson (ed), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors in education, pp. 267-278. San Diego: Academic Press.

Schellenberg EG. 2004. Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science 15(8) 511-514.

Schellenberg EG. 2005. Long-term positive associations between music lessons and IQ. Journal of Educational Psychology 98(2): 457-468.

Schellenberg EG. 2006. Long-term positive associations between music lessons and IQ. Journal of Educational Psychology 98(2): 457-468.

Schlaug G, Norton A, Overy K and Winner E. 2005. Effects of music training on the child’s brain and cognitive development. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1060: 219-230.

Content last modified 10/11

About Lady Fair

Lady is a musician with a bachelor's degree in music education. She plays multiple instruments and has participated in numerous musical ensembles, giving her a wide variety of experiences and knowledge to use in her teaching career. Of her ensemble participation, she has fifteen years of band experience, nine years choral, and four years in orchestra. Éowyn's primary instrument is clarinet, with voice and piano being close secondary instruments. Throughout her musical education career she studied voice and clarinet simultaneously. In addition to clarinet, piano, and voice, she has also studied violin and oboe at the college level, and also plays recorder, tin whistle, and other instruments in the woodwind family. If you ask her, she will say, "I chose to major in music education because I have a desire to use my knowledge and experience in music to share its beauty and foster a love of music in the hearts of my students. I hope to encourage my students to try their hardest, feel like they have accomplished something, and give them a life long passion for music." Lady currently teaches private lessons on clarinet, sax, flute, oboe, piano, and voice, and recently gained a position teaching orchestra and chorus at a local middle school. She is also a member of the Once Upon a Dream woodwind ensembles.
This entry was posted in Informational and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Music and intelligence: A guide for the science-minded parent

  1. mamacravings says:

    I “stumbled” across your blog and am so glad that I have! My little one is 2 1/2 and is fascinated with music. In our smaller town, it can be difficult to find music education that is less than a fortune. There is a fantastic musical arts program at our church, but it is for children 6 and older. However, I can apply so much of what is taught here to my baby boy’s education program.

    • Eowyn Fair says:

      I’m glad you enjoy the content! As your little one grows and learns to enjoy music, feel free to share any of your experiences or resources with me and I will post them. 🙂

      I would definitely suggest musical exposure and stimulation at this age. Get a small keyboard (two octaves) or a child’s keyboard toy – that will do a lot to stimulate interest if he can see how what he does on the keyboard changes what he hears. Also seeing you play an instrument, and hearing music at home, will do much to stimulate interest. 5 or 6 is a good age to start a student on piano or violin, so he doesn’t have far to go! Good luck in your musical endeavors. 🙂

      • mamacravings says:

        Thank you so much! We have a little keyboard and many play instruments. A few months ago, we took him to his first concert (The Fresh Beat Band). I’m really thankful that my husband sees his interest in music and wants to grow it as well.

    • Eowyn Fair says:

      I just remembered the website,! It might be helpful to you. 🙂

  2. There are a few excellent programs in this
    price range and they are expensive enough to produce professional quality yet cheap enough to not break the
    bank. Only a few years ago doing such a task from your computer via the web was a near impossibility, the only way
    to do it was with complex and super expensive hardware and a degree in music.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s