Do music lessons make kids smarter? Maybe. Studies report that musical kids perform better on tests of math skills, verbal ability, and even IQ. They may also have more grey matter in the brain. And a now a new study suggests that childhood music training helps people stay sharp as they get older.
So is it too late if you haven’t been sending your toddler to piano lessons? I don’t think so. The latest study hints at long-term benefits for kids who begin training around the age of ten.
Here’s a quick guide to the latest discoveries.
Musicians are smarter than mere listeners
The Mozart effect has been effectively debunked. Merely listening to music might make you feel a bit more creative, but it doesn’t seem to make you any smarter.
By contrast, there is mounting evidence that learning to play a musical instrument may shape the brain and boost your intelligence.
Studies of young children suggest that 4-6 year olds who play instruments perform better on tests of working memory. And older kids who play instruments have performed better on tests of general intelligence.
Are these correlations deceptive? Could it be that kids who are more intelligent are also more likely to get enrolled in music lessons? Maybe, but as I note in my Parenting Science review of the effects of music training, we have reason to think that music training makes kids smarter.
For example, one study administered IQ tests to 6-year-olds and then randomly assigned each child to receive one of four treatments:
• Keyboard lessons
• Singing lessons
• Drama lessons
• No lessons
At the end of the school year, the kids were tested again. Only the children who had received music lessons showed improvements.
As I note in the Parenting Science article, other research indicates that musicians have more grey matter in the brain.
And now a new study suggests that music training may help your kids stay sharp and cognitively flexible as they age.
When Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia McKay tested 70 older adults (aged 60-85), the researchers discovered a link between cognitive function and childhood music lessons.
The adults who’d had the most musical training—ten years or more—performed better than non-musicians on some cognitive tests. They had an easier time naming objects. In addition, they showed evidence of superior visual (nonverbal) memory and cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch from one set of rules to another when the situation demands it.
There were also differences between non-musicians and people who’d studied music for less than 10 years. These differences weren’t as marked, and might be attributable to chance. But overall, there was a positive relationship between activity and cognitive performance:
The more years a person had spent playing an instrument, the better she did on the cognitive tests. And the musicians maintained their cognitive advantage even if they no longer played a musical instrument. This was true even though the musicians and non-musicians had achieved similar levels of education.
The results aren’t conclusive. Maybe the musicians socialized more, and the social stimulation is what kept them sharp. Or perhaps musicians are more physically active. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, physical exercise may benefit the brain too.
But this study is the first to examine the possibility of lifelong effects of musical training, and it will doubtless inspire more research.
Meanwhile, we should focus on this encouraging point: You don’t have to start music training very early in life to reap important benefits.
The musicians in this study weren’t professionals, and they weren’t child prodigies either. On average, they didn’t learn to play an instrument until they were about 10 years old.
Perhaps future studies will show that the cognitive benefits of music training are greatest for kids who begin earlier. But for now it appears that training can benefit kids who start in middle childhood. If your child didn’t start playing the violin in preschool, it’s not too late.
And besides, music is about much more than gaining a few points in IQ or preserving your mental agility. Learning to play an instrument is intrinsically rewarding. And new skills are valuable at any age.