Wonderful Wizard of Oz

research finds no cognitive benefits to musical training

December 12, 2013
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hildren get plenty of benefits from music lessons. Learning to play instruments can fuel their creativity, and practicing can teach much-needed focus and discipline. And the payoff, whether in learning a new song or just mastering a chord, often boosts self-esteem.

But Harvard researchers now say that one oft-cited benefit — that studying music improves intelligence — is a myth.

Though it has been embraced by everyone from advocates for arts education to parents hoping to encourage their kids to stick with piano lessons, a pair of studies conducted by Samuel Mehr, a Harvard Graduate School of Education(HGSE) doctoral student working in the lab of Elizabeth Spelke, the Marshall L. Berkman Professor of Psychology, found that music training had no effect on the cognitive abilities of young children. The studies are described in a Dec. 11 paper published in the open-access journal PLoS One.

“More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children’s grades or intelligence,” Mehr said. “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.”

The notion that music training can make someone smarter, Mehr said, can largely be traced to a single study published in Nature. In it, researchers identified what they called the “Mozart effect.” After listening to music, test subjects performed better on spatial tasks.

Though the study was later debunked, the notion that simply listening to music could make someone smarter became firmly embedded in the public imagination, and spurred a host of follow-up studies, including several that focused on the cognitive benefits of music lessons.

Though dozens of studies have explored whether and how music and cognitive skills might be connected, when Mehr and colleagues reviewed the literature they found only five studies that used randomized trials, the gold standard for determining causal effects of educational interventions on child development. Of the five, only one showed an unambiguously positive effect, and it was so small — just a 2.7 point increase in IQ after a year of music lessons — that it was barely enough to be statistically significant.

“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.

To explore the connection between music and cognition, Mehr and his colleagues recruited 29 parents and 4-year-old children from the Cambridge area. After initial vocabulary tests for the children and music aptitude tests for the parents, each was randomly assigned to one of two classes, one that had music training, or another that 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.”


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