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To What Extent Can Music Improve a Child’s Intelligence?

Abstract. This essay consists of an investigation of To What Extent Can Music Improve and Develop Intelligence in Children. As the ‘Mozart Effect’ suggested that music could temporarily improve spatial intelligence, it also brought into question whether music could also improve and develop other types of intelligence.

Therefore, the focus of this essay was to determine if music did improve intelligence in children at all, which specific types of intelligence it improved, and the extent to which it improved. This investigation looked at how music affected linguistic intelligence, mathematical intelligence and IQ in children. I have used a combination of scientific and psychological journals, psychology textbooks and online resources to determine how music could improve each area of intelligence.

I will also investigate whether music actively causes this intelligence to develop and improve or if a predisposition to higher intelligence causes a child to be more inclined to take up and persist with music instruction instead. Throughout the research of this investigation, I concluded that music appeared to have a significant effect on linguistic intelligence, particularly to do with second language acquisition. Music did not seem to improve mathematical intelligence overall.

However, it made proportional math concepts more understand how music affected IQ tended to lean one way or another. It seems likely that children with generally higher intelligence would be more inclined to take up music lessons. Those music lessons would serve to reinforce their intelligence as a result.  It was also suggested that music could be used as an educational aid and that further research could look into how music affects learning specific languages, amongst other things.

Music is a fundamental part of our lives, and it exposes itself to us every day, whether it is by a catchy jingle from an ad on TV or this year’s hit new songs on the radio. Music can affect everyone in many ways, such as eliciting strong emotional responses or improving creativity. In recent years, researchers have suggested that music could even have a positive effect on our intelligence. ‘The Mozart effect’ is a phenomenon where listening to the works of the famous classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would supposedly improve the listener’s intelligence afterwards. When Rauscher et al. (1993) suggested the possible existence of ‘The Mozart effect,’ it captured the public’s attention. It led to the public belief that exposing children to classical music would boost their intelligence.

In May 2005, the BBC reported that many US hospitals had started to provide new mothers with classical CDs for their babies (North and Hargreaves, 2008) because of the Mozart effect. The ‘Mozart Effect’ seemed too good to be true, and indeed when researchers replicated the study, they found that it was; it turned out that intelligence scores did not vary as much as the ‘Mozart effect’ had predicted (Stough, Kerkin, Bates & Mangan, 1994). Three different meta-analyses confirmed that IQ scores did not increase as much as previously indicated and even that the ‘Mozart Effect’ was not just limited to works by Mozart. However, they also found that IQ scores with spatial intelligence did increase by a couple of points (Chabris, 1999; Pietschnig, Voracek, & Foremann, 2010; Hetland, 2000).

Even though the Mozart effect did not improve intelligence to the initial extent that Rauscher had claimed it had, it did have a noticeable effect on a certain type of intelligence. The notion that music could have a positive effect on specific types of intelligence was enough to lead researchers to investigate which types of intelligence were the most positively affected and to what extent. In recent years, researchers have found positive correlations between students who had taken music lessons and specific intelligence (Gardiner, Fox, Knowles and Jeffrey 1996; Gromko and Poorman, 1988; Rauscher and Zupan, 2000; Schellenberg, 2004). Some of this intelligence include linguistic intelligence (Schlaug, 2008), mathematical intelligence (Vaughn, 2000; Vaughn, Winner 2000; Spelke 2008) and general IQ (Schellenberg, 2006).

Researchers have also found positive correlations between music instruction and high school grades (Gouzouasis, Guhn, Kishor 2007; Vaughn, Winner, 2000). Of course, these are all correlational studies and do not specify a causal effect; however, if music is found to cause an increase in intelligence actively, this could help improve how young children are educated in the future. Therefore, this essay aims to investigate a cause-effect relationship between music and specific kinds of intelligence and To What Extent Music Can Improve and Develop Intelligence in Children. To do this, I will analyze and evaluate studies to do with how music affects linguistic intelligence, mathematical intelligence and IQ. My thesis is that music can greatly improve and develop certain types of intelligence as it requires, develops and utilizes many transferrable skills, such as reading, listening, and problem-solving.

The Effect of Music Instruction on Intelligence. Music and Linguistic Intelligence. The definition of linguistic intelligence is the ability to use and understand written and spoken language effectively. Typically, high linguistic intelligence is associated with making learning a second language easier and enhanced verbal abilities, which include being able to read and write proficiently. Learning how to play music is very similar to learning a new language, as, like language, there are certain rules to adhere to (e.g. chords, harmonies, octaves, etc.) to produce music, which is similar to grammatical rules and learning how to read a music score is almost identical to learning how to read a new alphabetical writing system. Like language, music is also used as a way of expressing oneself through tone, pitch and sound.

Within music, many specific terms are written in Italian, such as ‘adagio,’ which means to play slowly and ‘adagissimo,’ which means to play very slowly. Common terms like these demonstrate a simple example of a superlative structure in a second language, which would prime the child’s mind for acquiring a second language as they would be able to recognize, construct and apply said structure with practiced ease. Petitto (2008) found that adults who had received some form of musical instruction during their childhood had a better fluency and understanding of a second language when compared to adults who did not receive any musical instruction. Whilst this indicates that music does have a positive effect on second language acquisition, it is entirely correlational and therefore does not identify whether the musical instruction was the cause of this difference.

Petitto does not mention how big her sample size was, making these results difficult to generalize. Despite this, this study is supported by Lowe (1995). Lowe found that 6 -7-year-old Canadian children achieved higher scores for French reading comprehension and oral grammar when they received integrated music instruction over a three-month period. Lowe’s study supports the notion that music training makes language acquisition easier. However, one could also argue that since Canada’s national languages are both English and French, it is also possible that the improved scores were a consequence of living in an environment where the children are constantly exposed to the French language. One of the major issues with Lowe’s study is that it did not account for possible differences in the children’s reading abilities, this may have skewed the results as the children who have a harder time reading, in general, would have also had a difficult time trying to do the tests.

This limitation could be made up for by Moreno et al. (2011), who found that a vast majority of children who received musical instruction also improved their verbal intelligence as a result. Both Lowe’s and Moreno et al.’s studies support the idea that undergoing musical training could make the process of acquiring a second language in young children much easier. There is also biological evidence to suggest why music instruction positively influences second language acquisition, as researchers have found that parts of the brain associated with music are also associated with language (Science Daily, 2007). Therefore, this would suggest that when a child practices and improves their musical ability, they are also practicing and improving the part of the brain to do with language, which would make it easier to learn another language.

In regards to verbal abilities, Andrews (1997) found that when music was integrated into children’s education, whilst it did improve children’s general attitudes towards activities such as reading, it did not appear to affect the actual reading ability of the children. This suggests that music does not directly affect verbal abilities itself but improves how children view linguistic tasks. If a child were to consider reading, writing, and learning fun, they are much more likely to continue to do so and improve their linguistic abilities as a result. This is significant as this could give educators the incentive to incorporate music programs alongside typical language subjects to help children learn better. Generally, it appears that music instruction does have a direct, positive influence on linguistic intelligence regarding learning a second language. However, the link between verbal abilities and music is not as clear.

Music and Mathematical Intelligence. Mathematical intelligence encompasses an individual’s numerical ability, such as understanding simple mathematical rules and concepts and being able to apply them appropriately. Numerical ability also includes skills such as pattern recognition and an understanding of proportion, ratio, fractions and subdivision, which apply to the different ‘notes’ that appear in music, e.g. a crotchet, also known as a quarter note, is only half as long as a minim, a half note. Vaughn (2000) carried out a couple of meta-analyses, one of which looked at eight studies and found a slight positive correlation between high school students who had chosen to study music and high math test scores. Her other meta-analysis established a causal relationship between music training and mathematical ability, as it found music training would actively help to improve students’ numeracy based on results from six experimental studies.

The major limitations of both of her studies were that the number of studies she had analyzed was not very high, making generalization difficult. She could not control the variables within each study, a typical pitfall of meta-analyses. In her second meta-analysis, she was also only able to observe a significant positive influence from two of the six studies. Vaughn herself concluded that the notion that music instruction could improve mathematical intelligence had not been tested accurately. Hence, it’s tough to say outright that music instruction directly improves mathematical intelligence. Southgate and Roscigno (2009) conducted a large longitudinal study to determine the relationship between music participation and mathematical ability in young children and adolescents. They used participants from public and private schools and controlled for confounding variables such as gender, previous academic achievements and ethnicity.

They found that, once they had controlled for previous academic achievement, adolescents had a moderate correlation between music and mathematical achievement and young children had a much stronger positive correlation between music participation and mathematical achievement. One of the limitations of this study was that the researchers were not able to look at how the duration of musical participation could have affected each of the children’s mathematical abilities. Thus, like Vaughn’s study, the results could only establish a relationship but not the specific cause of the increase in mathematical achievement.

Both Vaughn’s and Southgate’s findings are supported by Harris (2007), who found that young children had significantly increased mathematical ability after receiving a music-enriched Montessori education, compared to children who had only received traditional Montessori education. However, it is unclear in Harris’ study if there was equal educational instruction for both groups of children or if the music-enriched group had received more time to include the music instruction. If it were the case that the children with the music-enriched education had also received more instructional time, then these findings could have been a result of more instruction rather than the music training itself.

Further support comes from Courey et al.’s study, which investigated how effective music instruction was in teaching young children the basic mathematical concept of fractions (2012). As mentioned before, it would make sense for musical training to improve children’s understanding of fractions, as music notation typically includes notes that are fractions of a beat. Music training did appear to help the children develop a more significant understanding of fractions and proportional mathematics; however, this study has quite a few limitations. The first major issue is that the participants of this study were not randomly assigned into each of the experimental and control groups, and the sample size is tiny and limited to only one school. All of the students also had English as a second language, which would make it more difficult to generalize these results.

The last major limitation is that one of the researchers and a music teacher instructed the children. This could have affected the children’s achievement as both the researcher’s and music teacher’s teaching abilities could have been more effective than a typical 3rd-grade teacher’s, so there’s no guarantee that if music instruction were to be implemented on a larger scale, that it would have results that were similar to this study. Forgeard et al.’s meta-analysis suggest that music does not improve or even affect mathematical ability (2008). The purpose of the meta-analysis was to investigate how instrumental music lessons for children related to skills that were vaguely relevant to music, such as verbal and mathematical skills.

They compared forty-one children who had received at least three years of instrumental music lessons with eighteen children who had not received any music instruction and found that whilst music instruction did appear to predict a positive association with verbal abilities, they did not find any positive predictive associations with mathematical abilities. Although this is significant, it is worth noting that the researchers did not test for the children’s general verbal and nonverbal IQ at the start of the study, so there was no baseline established. This makes it difficult to determine if the children who had received music instruction already had higher verbal and non-verbal abilities than the control group children.

Music and IQ. IQ is a measure of general intelligence and aptitude by way of a standardized intelligence test. Schellenberg et al. (2006) observed that children aged 6- 11 who had received a longer duration of musical training had higher IQ scores when compared to children who had received no musical training. Whilst this observation was significant, it is purely correlational and cannot determine whether the higher IQ scores were a direct cause of the musical training the children had received. Another limitation of this study was that Schellenberg had used convenience sampling to gather his participants, who had all come from suburban, middle-class families. It could therefore be just as likely that the higher IQ scores resulted from a better education that is typically available to families of a higher socioeconomic status.

Schlaug (2005) carried out two studies to determine whether the structural and functional differences in the brains of adult musicians were a direct result of music training during childhood or of innate musical aptitude. First, he carried out a cross-sectional study that compared the IQ scores of children aged 9 – 11 who had had at least 4 years of musical instruction with non-musical children and found that the musical children generally had higher IQ scores. Whilst that study was purely correlational, he also carried out a longitudinal study over fourteen months. In the longitudinal study, Schlaug compared the IQ scores of fifty 5 – 7-year-old children who received either piano or violin lessons against 25 children who did not receive any music lessons. He found that the experimental group of children had gained a small significant increase in their IQ scores compared to those who did not have music lessons.

Schlaug’s study suggests that learning how to play a musical instrument does, in fact, improve IQ in children. However, a problem with Schlaug’s study is that whilst it does suggest instrumental music training actively improves IQ, the sample size of the longitudinal study is far too small, making it difficult to generalize these findings on a wider scale. One could also argue that Schlaug is falling victim to researchers’ bias by choosing to determine these findings because of musical instruction rather than other variables such as more instruction from their teachers. Giomi’s study (1999) suggested that whilst there is an improvement in IQ score, the effect is not only small but also temporary. Like Schlaug, Giomi also carried out a longitudinal study that aimed to investigate musical instruction’s effects on young children. She studied seventy-eight 9 – 12-year-old children, approximately half boys and half girls, and randomly assigned half of the seventy-eight children to receive piano lessons after school every week (experimental group) and the other half to receive no piano lessons.

This study was carried out over three years, and she gave IQ tests to each of the children before musical instruction began and at the end of each year of the study. At the beginning of the study, all of the children generally had identical test scores, so, like Schlaug, there did not appear to be any innate musical aptitude amongst any of the children. However, Giomi found that initially, at the end of the first and second year of piano instruction, the musical children had higher IQ test scores than the control group children; however, at the end of the third year, both groups had similar scores. Whilst this seems to suggest that IQ does not increase permanently because of music lessons, Giomi proposed that this could have been due to the children’s initial enthusiasm and dedication at the beginning of the study.

At the beginning of the study, the children receiving the piano lessons would have been more enthusiastic about learning and practicing the piano; however, after a couple of years, this enthusiasm would have given way to dedication. The fact that the biggest IQ improvements were observed in children who had the highest attendance and practice rates than the others supports Giomi’s proposal, which further suggests that those who practiced the piano with greater intensity and for a longer duration would receive a greater benefit from it. What is interesting about Giomi’s study is the suggestion that the duration and dedication to practicing for their music training had the most significant effect on children’s intelligence. However, Giomi’s study does not address or identify which particular part of the music training had slightly increased IQ.

Therefore, one could argue that the increase in general IQ in the children resulted from more interaction and attention from the music teacher rather than from any skills developed or gained from the music training itself. It is also worth noting that the experimental group used children between the ages of 9 – 11, typically when puberty begins. Research suggests that children undergo “major cognitive changes” just before and during puberty (Albert, 1996), which could have had a significant effect on the general IQ increase observed in these children.

IQ Tests and Bidirectionality. As these studies looked at how music affects specific types of intelligence, they had to use the psychometric approach. The psychometric approach assumes that intelligence can be quantified and measured in an observable and empirical manner. To do this, individuals are administered IQ tests. Most of the studies investigated in this essay have used the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and/or the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests. These tests tend to be useful in making academic ability predictions; however, creating reliable IQ tests is incredibly difficult. In addition, they can often exhibit cultural bias by containing questions specific to the culture the test or the designer grew up in. For example, the question “Washington is to 1 as Jefferson is to ____” might seem easy to an American child. Clearly, the answer must be “3”, as Jefferson is the 3rd president of the US, however to a British child, the question would appear to be difficult as British education typically would not include American Presidential history.

There is also the issue that most IQ tests are based on a normal distribution, i.e. the scores are compared to the rest of the population. This means that if an individual were to receive a low score, they would assume that they were less intelligent than the rest of the population and, therefore, subconsciously conforming to the idea, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. IQ tests also do not distinguish whether intelligence is a result of genetic predisposition or environmental factors. Most experts tend to agree that it is a mixture of both, due to the results of twin studies; however, in the case of this investigation, it has been tough to determine whether music had improved intelligence or whether children who already had a higher intelligence were more likely to take up music.

Schellenberg (2012) argued that if music significantly improved intelligence, then arguably, all adult musicians, particularly those who had undertaken some form of music instruction for most of their lives, must be geniuses. Typically, this is not the case in real life, suggesting that music training does not have a direction if the influence on intelligence. Evidence suggesting that a higher general IQ leads individuals to take up and/or discover talent in music is evident in case studies of some people with Savant syndrome. Savant syndrome is the term for individuals who are typically either highly autistic or have had some central nervous injury, exhibiting prodigious skills in music, art and mathematics. Whilst it is suggestive, it is not conclusive evidence as the mechanism behind Savant syndrome is not fully understood.

Conclusion. Based on the evidence and studies investigated in this essay, I believe the extent to which music can improve and develop intelligence in children is quite varied. It seems unlikely that music can help children improve their overall mathematical intelligence. Still, it does appear to make understanding the concepts of ratio, fractions and proportional mathematics much easier. Regarding linguistic intelligence, music lessons do appear to help improve children’s ability to learn a second language. This is interesting to me, as I have learned to play six instruments and seven languages. It is much more difficult to determine whether music also directly affects general IQ in children. Still, the studies seem to suggest a bidirectional relationship between music training and general IQ.

That is to say, children who naturally have a higher intelligence may be more inclined to take up music lessons and those music lessons in turn help to reinforce their intelligence. These conclusions are significant as they could encourage educators to incorporate music to aid children’s education. At the very least, there is no incentive to completely cut out music programs from young children’s educations, as it does not hurt their intelligence. However, further experimental research must be done to establish precisely if the music does effect intelligence at all, if it is the other way round or even if the relationship between music and intelligence is mutual. Some of the questions this topic raises include ‘Are there specific types of music instruction that have a greater effect on intelligence?’

For example, one could argue that pianists have higher intelligence than violinists; the sheet music for piano uses a treble clef and a bass clef, whereas only the treble clef is used in violin sheet music. Since pianists have to read two lines of music simultaneously, some might say that they are more intelligent than other types of instrumental players. ‘Is there a specific genre of music that has a greater effect on second language acquisition?’ or ‘Which languages are easier to learn with musical instruction?’, for example, one could argue that musical instruction makes learning how to speak Chinese languages easier, as Chinese languages rely heavily on specific tones and pitches to convey meaning?

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