What’s the Big Idea?
Every parent wants their child to be smart, and it is commonly believed that there is an association between music and cognitive ability.
Classical music, and Mozart in particular, have been thought to improve memory and increase intelligence, due to studies such as one originally published in the journal Nature in 1993. Researchers at the University of California at Irvine found a temporary enhancement in spatial-temporal reasoning after students in their study listened to Mozart. These results were widely reported, widely misconstrued, and came to be known as “The Mozart Effect.” According to neuroscientist Sam Wang, the idea that passively listening to Mozart makes you smarter was “taken to an extreme where pregnant women put speakers on their bellies and think that this is somehow good for a baby’s development.”
Unfortunately, according to Wang, “passive listening to music appears to have no effect on cognitive ability.” On the other hand, learning to play a musical instrument (like Mozart, for instance, who began to play the harpsichord at three years old) “is more effective in influencing children’s brains.” According to Wang, learning to play a musical instrument activates many circuits in the brain, teaches children to appreciate music, and also teaches a skill “you’ll have throughout your whole life.” It won’t, however, improve your math scores.
According to Wang, one possible reason people believe there’s an association between music and math is due to the belief that “good habits travel in packs.” In other words, if you observe that someone has one good habit and then another good habit, “you can’t tell which of those habits is causative and which is the effect.” So it may be that children from affluent households on average are better at math. Children from affluent households also are more likely to take music lessons. There’s some difficulty in knowing whether music lessons caused the improvement in math ability, or vice versa, or whether some common factor caused both of them.
Wang points to a carefully controlled study in which the psychologist Glenn Schellenberg gave parents the opportunity to enroll their children in art lessons. Schellenberg separated them very carefully into groups. Some children took music lessons, others received drama lessons, while others were placed on a waiting list. Schellenberg observed a small improvement in math abilities in the music students versus the ones who did not get music lessons.
However, there was also an unanticipated benefit that Schellenberg discovered. The children who took drama lessons were better at understanding the mental states of others, and they were more socially adjusted.
What’s the Takeaway?