Does piano playing make children ‘smarter’?

Responding to a new research study.

In recent years a succession of academic papers, blog posts and media articles have pushed the view that learning a musical instrument can have the knock-on effect of essentially making children “smarter”.

One line of thinking is that many of the skills fostered through learning to play and practising a musical instrument have “transfer benefits” in other areas of cognitive development and academic attainment.

However, that view is now challenged in a research paper by Giovanni Sala, a PhD candidate in cognitive psychology, and Fernand Gobet, Professor of Decision Making and Expertise, both at the University of Liverpool, and published in the Journal of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI), February 2017.

One difficulty in responding to Sala & Gobet’s findings is that alongside their strongly evidenced research paper they have also written a short blog post with the eye-catching title,  No proof music lessons make children any smarter, which is aimed at the general reader, and is now being widely shared online via social media.

I am grateful to my friend Mark Polishook for sharing it, albeit with the disclaimer, “Don’t blame me – I’m only the messenger” – a sentiment I would very much like to echo in sharing this research here!

That said, there are just so many great reasons for learning to play a musical instrument that I’ve never felt the need for spurious ones – and if it turns out that the notion of “transfer benefits” is such, then I hardly think musicians and educators need to lose sleep over it. Better to know the truth – and to focus on genuine benefits when extolling the tremendous value of music education.

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