Can music improve a child’s ability to learn?

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3 January
11:47
3 January
12:03

There’s no evidence that simply listening to music improves the learning outcomes of children – but some promise that learning to play a musical instrument can have an influence.

"Music training – i.e. learning to play a musical instrument – is the only art form that has the best evidence of positive effects on the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of young people across all age ranges."

In 2015, at Durham University, we conducted a systematic review of international studies looking at 200 pieces of empirical research on the impact of arts activities on young people’s cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes. We looked at a broad range of subjects including the traditional fine arts – such as visual arts, music, dance, performing arts and theatre – as well as modern dance and movement, hip hop, poetry and creative writing.

Music training – i.e. learning to play a musical instrument – is the only art form that has the best evidence of positive effects on the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of young people across all age ranges (from pre-school to age 16). Of the 72 studies on music, 52 reported positive effects. Of these, eight were considered as having fairly good evidence, in the sense that they involved large samples (over 100), with comparison groups and comparing outcomes before and after exposure to music.

Positive effects of music training (playing an instrument) were reported for a range of outcomes: creativity, spatial-temporal ability, IQ scores, reading and language.

One experiment was conducted on 10 sets of twins aged 3–7, which showed that the twin who received private piano instruction improved in IQ and arithmetic scores, while the other twin who received no training showed no improvement. But this was a very small study, so the findings must be treated with caution.

"Many people think it’s an established fact that classical music can boost intelligence – the ‘Mozart effect’ idea that if an expectant mum plays Mozart to their unborn child, then they’ll improve its IQ."

A problem we find is that many of these studies tend to be on a small scale. If you compare two classes, for instance, you’re not really able to tell if the results are affected by the classes being taught differently. Others have methodological flaws, such as not having a comparison group.

An important consideration is that children who opt for music as an exam subject tend to do better academically, but they may be high performing children anyway, and music-focused schools as a whole tend to do better academically. In the US, for instance, those schools tend to have better qualified teachers in the first place, so you’re not comparing like for like.

Many people think it’s an established fact that classical music can boost intelligence – the ‘Mozart effect’ idea that if an expectant mum plays Mozart to their unborn child, then they’ll improve its IQ.

In reality, it’s more likely that children exposed to classical music may be from a culturally richer background to begin with, or from more educated families, and so the children tend to do well. But people will conflate the socio-economic background of the parents with the effects of the music. 

There is no credible evidence of the Mozart effect. Brain scans have shown changes in the brains of young people who have been exposed to classical music, but such changes do not necessarily translate to improvements in academic attainment.

So, in summary, there are a large number of positive studies to suggest there are promising beneficial effects of music training on learning outcomes, but no evidence that listening to classical music improves IQ or other cognitive skills. If improving academic attainment is the reason for taking up music, then it is not the way forward. Promising approaches already exist to improve children’s learning outcomes and behaviour. Music should therefore be enjoyed for its own sake – and not as a means to improving something else. If it does, then it’s a bonus.

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