Does music training really make children smarter? Study says it doesn't improve cognitive or academic skills

However, researchers say training in music may be beneficial for children by improving their social skills or self-esteem

                            Does music training really make children smarter? Study says it doesn't improve cognitive or academic skills
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Music training has repeatedly been claimed to positively impact children’s cognitive skills such as memory, as well as academic achievements such as maths, reading, or writing. Researchers, however, now say that music training does not have a positive impact on either cognitive or academic skills in children. 

“Based on 54 previous studies, including nearly 7,000 children, we found that music training did not lead to cognitive or education benefits. Music is a great activity and part of the culture of many countries, so it’s important that children learn about it and develop skills in a specific musical instrument or in singing. However, if you want your child to be better at school, it’s better to invest your money in extra tuition in mathematics and language,” author of a new study, Dr Fernand Gobet, Professorial Research Fellow, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of Economics and Political Science, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

According to the study, previous research trials, carried out to examine a potential causal link between music training and improved cognitive and academic performance, have reached inconsistent conclusions, with some suggesting that there may be a link between music training and better cognitive and academic performance and others finding little effect. “Researchers in this field have reached inconsistent conclusions. While most of them have expressed optimism about the benefits of music training, others have found this enthusiasm unjustified. Despite the less than encouraging evidence, dozens of new experimental investigations have been carried out in recent years in this field. Once again, the claims about the effectiveness of music training have been inconsistent across,” write authors from Fujita Health University, Japan, and the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK, in the analysis published in Memory & Cognition.

The research team thus examined existing experimental evidence regarding the impact of music training on children's non-music cognitive skills and academic achievement. “We ran a meta-analysis including both old and new experimental studies to establish which claims are justified, what are the sources of heterogeneity across studies, and which of the theories predicting that music training enhances cognitive and academic skills are corroborated/refuted,” they explain. 

The authors reviewed data from 54 previous studies conducted between 1986 and 2019, including a total of 6,984 children. They found that music training appeared to be ineffective at enhancing cognitive or academic skills, regardless of the type of skill (such as verbal, non-verbal, and speed-related, among others), participants' age, and duration of music training.

The research team found that music training appeared to be ineffective at enhancing cognitive or academic skills, regardless of the type of skill, participants' age, and duration of music training
(Getty Images)

“Our study shows that the common idea that ‘music makes children smarter’ is incorrect. 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. 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. Researchers' optimism about the benefits of music training appears to be unjustified and may stem from a misinterpretation of previous empirical data,” writes lead author Giovanni Sala from Fujita Health University. 

When comparing between the individual studies included in their meta-analysis, the authors found that studies with high-quality study design, such as those which used a group of active controls -- children who did not learn music but instead learned a different skill, such as dance or sports -- showed no effect of music education on cognitive or academic performance. Small effects were found in studies that did not include controls or which did not randomize participants into control groups (ones that received different or no training) and intervention groups (ones that received music training), reveals analysis.

The researchers caution that too few studies have been conducted to reach a definitive conclusion about possible positive effects of music education on non-academic or cognitive characteristics. Alternative potential avenues involving music activities may be worth exploring, they suggest. “Music training may nonetheless be beneficial for children, for example by improving social skills or self-esteem. Certain elements of music instruction, such as arithmetical music notation could be used to facilitate learning in other disciplines,” says Dr Gobet. 

According to Dr Gobet, the main interest behind the study was the question of “far transfer” -- that is, do skills acquired in one domain (such as learning Spanish) generalize to other domains (such as mathematics)? Several researchers have argued that far transfer is possible using the right kind of cognitive training, which is, depending on the researchers, music, chess, memory training, brain training, or video-game-playing. “In all these domains, we have carried out statistical analyses synthesizing the available empirical data, and we have always obtained the same result: there is no far transfer. So, music is no exception. It is interesting to mention that people can learn huge amounts of knowledge in a specific domain and become extremely good in that domain (such as a chess grandmaster or a concert pianist). However, there is no evidence that the skills they have acquired transfer to any other domain,” Dr Gobet told MEAWW.

He added, “However, there is evidence that there is near-transfer, such as practicing memory skills in a given task improves memory in similar tasks; or learning to play the violin makes it easier to learn the piano. So, future research should focus on near transfer rather than far transfer.”

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