If Johnny doesn't take to
the violin, don't fret. A new study challenges the widely held belief that
music lessons can help boost children's intelligence.
"More than 80% of
American adults think that music improves children's grades or
intelligence," study author Samuel Mehr, a graduate student in the School
of Education at Harvard University, said in a university news release.
"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 [mental] development," he
In this study, Mehr and his
colleagues randomly assigned 4-year-old children to receive instruction in
either music or visual arts.
"We wanted to test the
effects of the type of music education that actually happens in the real world,
and we wanted to study the effect in young children, so we implemented a
parent-child music enrichment programme with preschoolers," Mehr explained.
"The goal is to encourage musical play between parents and children in a
classroom environment, which gives parents a strong repertoire of musical
activities they can continue to use at home with their kids."
Both groups of children
later underwent vocabulary, math and spatial skills tests. There was no
evidence that the 15 children in the music group had any intellectual advantage
over the 14 in the visual arts group.
The researchers then
conducted a second experiment that included 45 children, with half receiving
music training and half receiving no training. Again, the researchers found
that music lessons did not provide any brain benefit, according to the study
published in the journal PLoS One.
Unique human activity
While the findings suggest
that music lessons won't improve a child's school grades, music education is
still important, according to Mehr.
"There's a compelling
case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic
benefits. 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,"
"Music is an ancient,
uniquely human activity – the oldest flutes that have been dug up are 40,000
years old, and human song long preceded that," Mehr noted. "Every
single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says
something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach
this to our children."