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Music lessons may not help children do better in academic subjects after all, study suggests

“Our study shows that the common idea that ‘music makes children smarter’ is incorrect,” says Giovanni Sala, the lead author of the meta-analysis.

child playing guitar
The study's lead author Giovanni Sala: “Our study shows that the common idea that ‘music makes children smarter’ is incorrect.”
Photo by Elmer Cañas on Unsplash

Giving children piano or violin lessons — or any other musical training — does not improve their memory or other cognitive skills. Nor does it boost their academic performance in math, reading or writing. That’s the (rather disappointing) finding from new research — a meta-analysis of more than four dozen previous studies — published recently in the journal Memory & Cognition.

“Our study shows that the common idea that ‘music makes children smarter’ is incorrect,” says Giovanni Sala, the lead author of the meta-analysis and a psychologist at Japan’s Fujita Health University, in a released statement. “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.”

Some previous studies have suggested that the cognitive skills children learn during music training — such as recognizing pitches and keeping a beat — are transferred to other cognitive skills, such as performing better at math or reading. Other studies, however, have found that studying music has little or no effect on these other skills.

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Indeed, as background information in the current meta-analysis notes, the transfer of skills across distant cognitive domains (known as “far transfer”) “is rare or possibly inexistent,” whether the skills involve music or something else.

“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,” Sala explains. “Researchers’ optimism about the benefits of music training appears to be unjustified and may stem from misinterpretation of previous empirical data.”

How the study was done

For the meta-analysis, Sala and his co-author, Fernand Gobet, a cognitive psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, re-analyzed data from 54 previous studies conducted between 1986 and 2019. These studies included almost 7,000 children between the ages of 3 and 16 with no previous formal music experience.

Less than half of the studies — 23 — were randomized controlled trials, considered the “gold standard” of research.

The meta-analysis revealed that musical training had essentially no effect on cognitive and academic outcomes, no matter what type of skill was investigated (such as verbal, non-verbal or speed-related). The children’s ages and the length of the music training also made no difference.

What did make a difference was the quality of the studies. “There is an inverse relationship between the studies’ design quality and magnitude of the effect sizes,” Sala and Gobet point out in their paper. Specifically, they found that the randomized studies, as well as ones with active controls (children who did not learn music but who received other training, such as for a sport) showed that music had essentially no effect on cognitive outcomes, while the less rigorously designed studies described a small effect.

These findings confirm an earlier meta-analysis by the same two authors that came to the same conclusion. “We can thus conclude that these findings convincingly refute all the theories claiming that music training causes improvement in any domain-general cognitive skill or academic achievement,” Sala and Gobet write.

The results also confirm the that far transfer is an extremely rare occurrence, they add.

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Beneficial for other reasons

This meta-analysis comes with caveats. As its authors acknowledge, the number of studies conducted on this topic is too small to completely rule out possible positive effects of music training on children’s cognitive skills. Other avenues involving music activities may be worth further scientific investigation.

“Music training may nonetheless be beneficial for children, for example by improving social skills or self-esteem,” says Gobet, the co-author of the meta-analysis and a cognitive psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, in a released statement. “Certain elements of music instruction, such as arithmetical music notation, could be used to facilitate learning in other disciplines.”

FMI:  Memory & Cognition is an open-access journal, so you can read the full study online.