Music & IQ

Music & IQ Photo Credit: Clipart.com.

Although many public schools across America are cutting their music programs, a number of studies suggest that music classes can benefit children not only culturally, but intellectually as well. You'll hear the latest in this Science Update.


Young brains tend to thrive with the sound of music. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Music lessons may not only teach your kid how to carry a tune—they may also boost his or her I.Q. That's according to a study, led by Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto.

Dr. Schellenberg's team studied a hundred and forty-four first graders over the course of a year. Some were given free keyboard or voice lessons, while others were given drama lessons or no lessons at all.


Now, in general, each of the groups showed an increase in IQ, but this is a common finding, and really just the simple act of attending school tends to raise children's I.Q.'s. So the finding was that for all the groups, their I.Q.'s rose about four points from pre-test to post-test. But for the kids in the music groups, they rose about seven points.

He says the drama group showed improvements in social skills, rather than I.Q. The benefits for music, on the other hand, reached across all aspects of the I.Q. test. Dr. Schellenberg suspects that music and schoolwork actually build similar learning skills, but that music motivates kids more.


In other words, music lessons may be an additional, school-like activity that kids actually find enjoyable.

As a result, they beef up intellectual muscles that come in handy in the classroom. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

This is far from the first study to explore a possible relationship between music lessons and school performance. However, the way it was conducted deserves special attention.

Many previous studies of musical training have connected it to specific intellectual skills, like mathematics or spatial reasoning. The theory behind these studies is that music shares many things in common with math and geometry: the relationships between notes and different keys, for example, can be expressed in spatial or numerical terms; music is written in a numerical-spatial code; and music involves precise numerical timekeeping.

Schellenberg's team wanted to study the effect of music on intelligence in general, so they chose a comprehensive I.Q. test as their measure of performance. They also wanted to separate out the effects of social or economic status (for instance, the possibility that children whose parents could afford music lessons enjoyed more intellectual stimulation at home or at school). So they recruited volunteers through a newspaper ad for free music lessons. None of the kids in the study had taken music lessons before. (To be fair, they offered the kids in the "no lessons" group free lessons the following year.)

They also chose two different types of music lessons—keyboard and voice—to make sure that music in general, not some specific kind of music, had the beneficial effect. And they also gave some of the kids drama lessons instead of music lessons, to test the possibility that any kind of arts training would be beneficial.

Their results clearly suggest that music in general, but not drama, improves I.Q. across the board. Interestingly, the drama group enjoyed benefits in the area of social development, which makes sense, since drama is by its nature a social art form, while music can be more solitary. The fact that I.Q. improved more for the music students in all areas of the test suggests that it isn't just mathematical or spatial abilities that are being strengthened. That's why Schellenberg thinks music lessons may just reinforce the skills that are being learned in school: memory, concentration, practicing a skill, understanding a new "language," and so on.

But that's just a guess: this study doesn't show exactly how music helped the kids. And it also can't tell us about the long-term effects of music lessons. Would the kids continue to improve in I.Q. if they continued taking lessons for several years? Would kids who stopped taking the lessons lose the ground they had gained? These questions will have to be left to future studies.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What exactly did this study show?
  2. How did Schellenberg's team design their study to answer the specific questions that they had in mind?
  3. Suppose the kids who took keyboard lessons improved their I.Q. more than the kids who took voice lessons. What would this imply? What other studies would you conduct after getting this result?
  4. Design a study that would answer the following question: "Do children who take music lessons over several years show intellectual improvements every year?" Think carefully about the different groups of children you would look at. Would you be able to put together these groups as easily as Schellenberg did? If not, what other explanations for your results would you have to rule out?

For Educators

Schellenberg's complete paper can be read as a PDF, courtesy of the American Psychological Society's website.

Mathematics professor Dave Rusin maintains a page devoted to links between music and mathematics.

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