Does music training improve cognitive skills?

Most people intuit that musical activities have benefits that extend beyond the immediate joys of music. There have been many reports of associations between musical training in childhood and later nonmusical cognitive outcomes. We discussed some of these reports on this weblog. Some of the more comprehensive studies on this issue are from the group headed by Dr. Elizabeth Spelke at Harvard.

In a series of studies, reported here, Spelke’s group compared children and adolescents with training in music to those with (a) no specific training, (b) training in sports, or (c) training in other art forms. Separate experiments tested for effects of mild to moderate training, moderate to intense training, or highly intense training. The studies suggest a relationship between music training and spatial ability (abstract geometry), but only in the intensively trained population of children. These were older children whose primary interest and academic work centered on their music training. Intensive training in visual arts was associated with certain improvements in sensitivity to geometry. Intense training in music or visual arts did not produce improvements in other mathematical abilities, such as numerical reasoning. No improvements were reported for children with moderate or low training in either music or visual arts.

These studies, and many like it, are correlational, and therefore cannot reveal whether music training causes improvements in children’s fundamental mathematical abilities. There have been very few randomized controlled trials to assess causal effects of music lessons. Dr. Spelke’s group recently reported on one such trial.

They compared preschool children who participated in a six week musical enrichment course, to children participating in a similar but non-musical form of arts instruction, and to a no-treatment control group. The children were assessed in four distinct cognitive areas: spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary. Overall, children provided with music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment.

This study adds to the small number (seven, at last count) of randomized controlled trials on this topic. The authors conclude by stating “Whether or not future studies uncover reliable relations between music education and extra-musical aspects of cognitive development, instruction in the arts likely will thrive for its intrinsic value.”

Asaf Keller