A new study dispels the notion cherished among certain classes of Americans that music improves a child’s intelligence. Contrary to overwhelming opinion, those called to sophomore chorus — or to share their divine talent “unplugged” before a campfire — may surely benefit from improved focus and discipline, aspects of intelligence, some believe. But no effect on cognitive ability was found among children studied this year by a group of Harvard researchers.

"More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children's grades or intelligence, investigator Samuel Mehr said on Wednesday. ”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 cognitive development." To this point, only a few dozen studies have examined the purported mental benefits of studying music, ansd only five used randomized controlled studies, studies designed to isolate causal effects. Of those five, only one showed a clearly positive effect — but conferred an intelligence quotient bump of only 2.7 points, barely discernible in a statistical sense.

The Mozart effect rose to cultural prominence in 1993 when researchers at the University of California, Irvine found a temporary boost to spatial-reasoning capacity among children who’d listened to selections of classical music. Although lasting no more than 15 minutes or so, the effect was touted as a sustainable boost to general intelligence, with Georgia Governor Zell Miller in 1998 promising more than $100,000 in funding per year to provide every child in the state with a recording of classical music.

However, the infamous study published in Nature never measured intelligence, instead asking children to complete sub-sections of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. The neurological study of any Mozart effect on the mind comes to the side of theoretical work from renowned psychologist Howard Gardner, who first proposed multiple intelligence theory in his 1983 book, Frames Of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In that theory, human intelligence can be mostly compartmentalized into seven primary domains of mental capacity, including spatial and “musical rhythmic” intelligences.

However, nothing has yet been proved. "The experimental work on this question is very much in its infancy, but the few published studies on the topic show little evidence for 'music makes you smarter'," Mehr said.

In a pair of experiments, Mehr and his colleagues followed 29 sets of parents and four-year-old children recruited locally, testing parents for music aptitude and children for vocabulary before placing children randomly in either a music class or one focused on 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 program with preschoolers," Mehr said. "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." Unlike previous study designs, Mehr taught both classes in the experiment to control the possibility that individual teachers might influence the effect, afterward assessing subjects with tests designed to measure four aspects of intelligence: cognition, vocabulary, mathematics, and spatial intelligence.

"Instead of using something general, like an IQ test, we tested four specific domains of cognition," Mehr said. "If there really is an effect of music training on children's cognition, we should be able to better detect it here than in previous studies, because these tests are more sensitive than tests of general intelligence."

Although no effect was found on general intelligence, students in the music class performed better on one of the two spatial reasoning problems in the test, with the visual art students outperforming them on the other. But given the small study size, Mehr and his colleagues then attempted to replicate the original Nature study, recruiting 45 more parents and children — half of whom had received previous training in music. Again, no effect was found, prompting Mehr to go so far as to defend music instruction in the schools.

"There's a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits," he said. "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.” Throughout human history and antiquity, music has represented an integral quality of the human animal, a commonality in every culture of the world — including music for children. Although listening to Mozart might not make children any smarter, surely there is no harm?

Source: Samuel Mehr. Contrary To Popular Opinion, Research Finds No Cognitive Benefits Of Music Lessons. PLoS ONE. 2013.