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.

Grabbing the headlines…

In their blog post, Sala & Gobet rather sensationally conclude:

“The results were clear, if disappointing – music is unlikely to provide any benefits for cognition and academic achievement.”

This contrasts with the rather more measured tone of their actual research, which concludes (among many other things):

“Due to the lack of well-designed studies, the question of whether music training enhances children’s and young adolescents’ intelligence- and memory-related skills is still unanswered.”

In this post I will be looking beyond Sala & Gobet’s blog to consider this rather more carefully nuanced academic paper, while offering a few comments, questions and personal observations which I hope might stimulate thought among the music teaching community.

Where’s the evidence?

Sala & Gobet start their study by noting the wealth of research that has attempted to draw a clear link between music education and cognitive development:

“Recently, the question of whether music-related activities in school improve young people’s cognitive and academic skills has raised much interest among researchers, educators, and policy makers. Several studies have tried to establish the effectiveness of music training in enhancing children’s and young adolescents’ general intelligence (Rickard, Bambrick, & Gill, 2012), memory (Roden, Kreutz, & Bongard, 2012), spatial ability and mathematics (Mehr, Schachner, Katz, & Spelke, 2013), and literacy skills (Slater et al., 2014), among others.”

Sala & Gobet have conducted a thorough review and “meta-analysis” of the whole body of existing research within the domain of psychological sciences. As well as incorporating the findings of all the relevant previous studies, they looked at narrative reviews and contacted researchers in the field, obtaining previously unpublished studies and otherwise inaccessible data.

Their nine inclusion/exclusion criteria helped them identify 38 studies conducted from 1986 to 2016, between them involving an impressive 3,085 participants.

Addressing the questions of skill transfer, executive function and cognitive development, Sala & Gobet’s rigorous reassessment of the data is far-reaching to say the least. Their method is described in detail in the full report, which of course also presents the findings of their carefully-considered analysis.

Debunking the myth…?

Sala & Gobet draw several important conclusions from their study, perhaps the most surprising of which is:

“The results of this meta-analysis fail to support the hypothesis that music skill transfers to cognitive or academic skills in the general population of children and young adolescents. Together with previous findings in psychology and education, these results suggest a sobering conclusion: when the potential occurrence of far-transfer is tested rigorously, the results are often, if not always, disappointing.”

Perhaps anticipating that these findings might be difficult reading for some, especially given the popular interest in the topic, the authors explain in their blog:

“Overall, our review shows small effects of music training on children’s cognitive skills and academic achievement. But when compared to an alternative activity – such as visual arts – there aren’t shown to be any significant benefits of music training.

“So if music training does not provide advantages in comparison to, say, drama lessons, then the observed benefits are probably due to the engagement in the new activity itself, rather than music in particular.”

In other words, while we might observe a “correlation” between music education on the one hand, and cognitive and academic achievement on the other, this is no more than a “correlation”; music education is not actually the “cause”.

The take-home message is this: “cause” and “correlation” are simply not the same thing.

The authors reference similar claims of transfer benefits, both cognitive and academic, that have been made for playing video-games, playing chess in schools, and for taking drama classes. They note that scientific findings consistently suggest that in these cases too, “far-transfer” of skills is extremely unlikely.

If we accept that these conclusions are true, we may be left wondering why others have claimed a direct link between music training and educational attainment. Are we now to believe that there is really no such correlation?

Sala & Gobet offer a simple observation:

“Put simply, people do not necessarily become smarter because they have learned how to play the piano or sing in a choir. Rather, smarter people are more likely to engage and excel in intellectual activities such as music. So while musicians may well be smarter than the general population, this does not prove that music-skill transfers to other abilities.”

Dodgy Research?

Sala & Gobet’s academic paper includes an extensive table detailing the previous research studies and findings which they consulted, noting which studies included randomisation and/or active control groups. Very few of the studies did both, and many did neither.

In fact, of the 38 studies that satisfied their initial nine “inclusion criteria”, Sala & Gobet say that only one study (Schellenberg, 2004) tested the effect of music training on children’s intelligence using a rigorous experimental design. They further explain:

“These results suggest  … that previous positive findings were probably due to confounding variables.”

With such a body of inconclusive – and perhaps unreliable – material, it is to be expected that Sala & Gobet recommend further research. Indeed, their concluding key recommendation is for better studies to be conducted in future:

“Future studies should strive for proper designs that include both random allocation of the participants and an active control group. Furthermore, future investigations should evaluate the effects of music training on both cognitive (especially intelligence and memory) and academic skills.

“Such a design makes it possible to empirically assess whether the potential benefits of music training on youngsters’ cognitive skills generalize to academic performance.”

Some conclusions

There seems little doubt that Sala & Gobet raise legitimate concerns about the widespread belief that there are specific cognitive “transfer benefits” to be gained from learning a musical instrument, and about the quality of some of the earlier research which has encouraged this view.

That said, this latest paper will now undoubtedly be subjected to intensive scrutiny by all those with an interest in the field, and rightly so. No one paper will ever be definitive. And we can hope that Sala & Gobet’s recommendation for further research and better studies will be followed.

It is also interesting to survey the parallel body of evidence growing within the domain of neuroscience. This seems at present to strongly support the view that something very significant happens when we learn to play an instrument. If further research confirms this to be the case then it raises the huge question, How come we aren’t seeing real evidence of cognitive and academic development in practice?

We can be sure that we haven’t heard the final word on this hugely complex set of inter-related issues. Nor should we dismiss such studies as academic navel-gazing, because the implications are as practical as they are profound, and ultimately address what is perhaps the most important but controversial question in music education:

Why, and to whom, should we deliver instrumental teaching?

As Sala & Gobet themselves explain:

“The educational implications of this research are evident. If music training enhances children’s and young adolescents’ cognitive skills and school grades, then schools might consider implementing additional musical activities.”

Immense value

It has always been my instinct that all children should receive the maximum possible exposure to high quality music-making and education, while also recognising that successfully learning to play an instrument very significantly depends on volitional and social influences.

Regardless of how we respond to Sala & Gobet’s findings, surely musicians and educators must commit ourselves to using our strongest arguments when campaigning for access to music education for all.

Take, for example, this carefully worded statement from Music Mark in connection with the National Curriculum, which avoids mentioning transferrable learning at all, but which eloquently celebrates the powerful benefits without doubt result from good music teaching:

“If taught well, music has the potential to make a significant contribution to children’s development: increasing confidence and self-esteem, developing leadership, team working, concentration and problem-solving skills, and developing identity and improving social cohesion within the school and wider community.”

Let’s shout from the rooftops that music education has immense value!

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

3 thoughts on “Does piano playing make children ‘smarter’?”

  1. Immense value indeed! How many of us listen to music, go to concerts, gigs, dance, sing, play an instrument….and done for our own pleasure and for the pleasure of others. Goodness how bleak everyone’s lives would be without music or access to its education!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I see a fundamental problem in this research: why only children from 3 to 16? Indeed, this study continued for 13 years? We – as a music teachers – can have statistics in observing of pupils and former students , which may cover more than 30 years, what allows to firmly say that – yes, music lessons develop the mind of
    HUMAN and not only of children . I lead an amateur jazz octet, where all participants have studied music in childhood , but do not have diplomas. Their occupations:
    Head of department in aircraft manufacturing,
    The well-known professor of neurology,
    The singer – his former student, and also professor,
    The teacher in the education system, has awards for his work,
    Bass player – developer of programs for computers,
    The scientist – chemist, he worked in the Valley Silicone .
    The pianist, who was before me, today the chief pathologist in our country.
    There are more similar amateur bands with members of similar profile. Is that a statistical coincidence?
    Whatever it was, the music lessons are changing human thinking in both children and adults. Here is small detail from my biography : I began a career as a classical musician, and then the age of 36 is completely moved to jazz – and my sense of humor has changed beyond recognition; probably due to constant improvisation.

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  3. You use an important word in your conclusion – ‘instinct’. Science is actually quite limited in helping us understand the world around us and can only throw up measurable aspects like statistics to make it’s conclusions. Instinct, intuition and many other ‘ethereal’ aspects of human understanding are not measurable in any empirical way, so have arguably been reduced to the sidelines by those who are unable to prove their efficacy in relation to the things they wish to study.

    As musicians, I think it’s safe to say we develop these abilities further than many people, but with the emergence of papers like Sara & Gobet’s, is there maybe a responsibility for us to redress the balance by promoting the more unmeasurable sides of our craft?

    Glad to see your Qigong series taking off, this is yet another aspect of the human experience that cannot be explained in pie charts & graphs – yet the healing and health benefits of its practice are undeniable! Nicely done sir!

    DGH

    Liked by 2 people

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