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Alas, another study debunks ‘Mozart effect’ on children

Singing preschoolersCreative Commons/popofatticusHarvard University researchers conducted two experiments and found that music training offered no cognitive advantage to children.

As I’ve pointed out here before, the “Mozart effect” — the idea that simply listening to classical music improves children’s spatial skills — has long been debunked.

Still, the belief that music training somehow makes children smarter or do better in school persists in the public’s mind — or at least in many parents’ minds.

As someone who studied two instruments throughout my childhood (and who made sure my own children took music lessons as well), I would be thrilled if that notion were to be proven true.

But, alas, it appears the evidence just isn’t there. In fact, a new study from a team of Harvard University researchers underscores that point. They conducted two experiments and found that music training offered no cognitive advantage to children.

Past evidence was weak

As the researchers point out in the introduction to their study, only five randomized control trials (science’s gold standard of evidence) have previously examined the effect of music training on children’s cognitive skills. Of those, only one showed a positive effect — a 2.7-point increase in IQ after 36 weeks of piano or voice lessons — but that effect was too small to be of much statistical significance.

For their own study, the researchers recruited 29 parents and 4-year-old children from the Boston area. The children were randomly assigned to take six weekly parent-child music or visual arts classes. To minimize any differences between the experiences of the two types of classes, the same teacher taught both (although he had more experience in teaching music than in teaching visual arts). Controlling for the effect of different teachers was a key element missing from earlier studies.

The children were tested for vocabulary, number and two forms of spatial skills before and after the six-week course of classes. An analysis of those tests found that both groups of children performed equally well on the vocabulary and number tests. The children split, however, on the spatial-skills tests: those with the music training performed better on one of the tests; those with the visual arts training performed better on the other.

“The effects were tiny and their statistical significance was marginal at best,” said lead author Samuel Mehr, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Education, in a press statement released with the study. “So we attempted to replicate the study, something that hasn’t been done in any of the previous work.”

A second experiment, which involved 45 parents and children, found no cognitive differences.

Boosting brain power is besides the point

Mehr and his colleagues acknowledge that their study had several limitations. Perhaps the music training would have demonstrated a cognitive advantage for the children if the classes had run for a longer period of time, for example, or been more formal in their structure.

But, as the researchers stress, just because music training may not help your child do better on the SATs is no reason to cancel the violin or singing lessons.

“We don’t teach our children Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy because it makes them do better in American history class or at learning the periodic table of the elements,” Mehr (who apparently plays the saxophone, flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon) told the Boston Globe. “We teach them those great authors because those great authors are important. There’s really no reason to justify music education on any other basis than its intrinsic merits. We have our Dante, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and they are Bach, Duke Ellington, and Benjamin Britten.”

The study was published this week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/13/2013 - 10:11 am.

    It’s true in my case

    I took piano lessons for several years as a boy, and guitar lessons for a period at least as long as an adult. I still can’t read music, don’t play piano, and, don’t understand music theory except to know that western music is essentially mathematically-based.

    More importantly in the context of this article, I have never been able to do “higher” math, like algebra, etc., so knowing that music is mathematically-based never carried over into actually understanding that mathematics.

    Somehow, I’ve managed to live a reasonably successful and healthy life without being able to do any higher math at all.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/13/2013 - 06:17 pm.

    I used to teach a foreign language on the college level, and one

    of the sad phenomena I witnessed every year was that of seniors who had come from small high schools where no foreign languages were taught and who therefore were intimidated by the idea of learning one. Because of that fear, they postponed their foreign language requirement till senior year, only to find out that they were good at language learning and really enjoyed it. But in a few months they would be going to medical school or joining an accounting firm or otherwise entering environments where it would be difficult to continue their studies.

    For that reason, I’m a great believer in exposing children and young people to as many kinds of learning as possible. Most children who take music lessons will not become professionals or even skilled amateurs, but every new kind of learning broadens a child’s horizons and may tap into talents and inclinations that even the child is not aware of.

    I once knew a small boy who was tuned into music by the age of three. He knew all the instruments by sight and sound and could even identify certain classical pieces. He was lucky in that his parents exposed him to all kinds of music from an early age and got him started on the violin when he was six.

    Yet there are talented children out there who will never develop their gifts in music, art, or languages because our society as a whole does not value these talents, and parents may not appreciate them or even recognize them.

    The founder of Venezuela’s El Sistema program was asked why he insisted on teaching classical music to children from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Why not Venezuelan pop music? His response was that Venezuelan pop music was what the children’s parents listened to while getting drunk; he wanted to take the children out of their depressing everyday lives and give them a vision of something better.

    Teaching music or art or dance or languages to children and young people may not make them better able to learn the multiplication tables, but there are definite benefits.

    One is that having wide-ranging experiences helps young people understand themselves and figure out what they’re good at.

    It also helps them acquire aesthetic standards, to learn almost unconsciously what is easy, what is hard, what is profound, and what is shallow.

    It takes them out of their everyday world and into faraway places and long-ago times.

    Like sports, the performing arts teach discipline and teamwork, but also ways of emotional expression. Even better, in contrast to a football or basketball game, where one team and half the audience goes home unhappy, a successful music, drama, or dance performance leaves everyone in a good mood, performers and audience alike.

    The arts introduce young people to activities that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives. I’ve known musicians, water color painters, and community theater actors, still performing at a high level past the age of eighty, and of course, there is no upper age limit for audiences.

    So while listening to Mozart (or Bach or Beethoven or anyone else) won’t make children smarter, it will have other benefits.

  3. Submitted by Robin Rainford on 12/15/2013 - 07:56 pm.

    No measurable cognitive gain after 6 lessons? Tsk tsk.

    I am amazed that this study was funded the first time, let alone replicated.
    If your son played 6 weekly t-ball games, would you measure his athletic gains? Not skill development, but actual physical changes?
    These findings are not very persuasive to me. I would expect nothing of significance after 6 weeks of daily lessons.

  4. Submitted by on 12/15/2013 - 08:10 pm.

    The concept that babies would be smarter if they listened to classical music was born out of this publicity. According to some article I read, temporary increase in intelligence is experienced after listening to classical music.

    Whether it is a fact or not, listening to classical music may possibly soothe your baby and turn her into a classical fan later in life, so not bad at all.

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