Category Archives: Music & Education

Will music make my child smarter?

Hello Dear Reader

Today we are going to do things a little differently. Instead of commenting on a new paper, my usual format, I have written a short opinion piece in response to something I read in a UK newspaper a few weeks ago. 

Please bear in mind of course that this is just one person’s response, and opinion. And it’s just a taster of the debate! There is much more coverage in my book, for anyone who wishes to know more. OK, on with the words….

Music Class at St Elizabeth's Orphanage New Orleans 1940
Music Class at St Elizabeth’s Orphanage New Orleans 1940

Access to music education has been on the decline, at least in UK schools, for years. I have experienced this regression from many angles: as a child who received free music lessons that my loving father later had to find the money to subsidize, as a music teacher who was forced to teach bigger and bigger classes, and as an academic who has attended debates in the Houses of Parliament surrounding the proposed cutting of music lessons from mainstream curricula.

These debates focus on the value of music education. Rightly or wrongly, questions center on the issue of whether music lessons carry any wider benefit for child development, and here we risk venturing into the dangerous waters of pop psychology.

Dr Louisa Diller (heads BMJ Group Research and Development) recently wrote a short Guardian piece ‘Will music make my child smarter?’ Like many similar articles the author wisely and quickly dismantles the larger media-driven idea of this so-called ‘Mozart Effect’ but in so doing states:

“… what happens if you encourage your child to play an instrument? According to Glenn Schellenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who studied the link between music lessons and higher achievement at school, it won’t make much difference”.

I don’t pretend to know your immediate reaction to these words, Dear Reader, but this kind of claim struck me as too general in tone and fundamentally wrong. It may also be potentially damaging when we consider the way that many government policy makers conceptualize the value of music education.

The claim that encouraging a child to make music will make little difference to their education misrepresents the conclusions of Professor Schellenberg’s research into music and child development.

smart kidIn the last decade Schellenberg has repeatedly questioned the idea that encouraging a child to take years of music lessons will result in a substantive increase in their IQ – and I agree with him.

But to simply brush aside the potential benefits of active musical involvement in childhood for development, based on this argument alone, is foolhardy.

First, we should acknowledge that music lessons can be invaluable for no other reason than the person learns about music.  My music education comprised pretty typical group-based UK state public school tuition but I absolutely treasure the fact that I can pick up my guitar and play whenever I want.

My musical ability in terms of performance may be limited after years of irregular practice but music gives me an outlet, a passion, and inspiration.

Putting aside the direct benefits of musical skills, why would musical education promote more general abilities? In You Are The Music I argue that music may be defined as a ‘super skill’ because learning to play an instrument or sing recruits so many brain areas including auditory, visual, motor, emotion and executive systems.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the impact of music making on development is to view the cascade in benefits that you see from training only one of these areas, the auditory system.

Nina-Kraus-Northwestern-University-Professor Nina Kraus and her research group has published many studies demonstrating how musical training is associated with a sharper brain response to sound, a more reliable neural representation of sound, and an improved ability to detect fine changes in sound, particularly in a noisy environment.


She summarises her findings in the phrase ‘music for a smarter ear’. These abilities relate to real education issues such as following instruction in a busy classroom and building language understanding.

listenSo when we look at hearing following music making, the cascade of benefits falls into place. Kraus repeatedly reports an association between years of music making and the benefits above, suggesting that the relationship is  causal.  Musical children benefit from an increase in related abilities such as speech processing, language learning and reading, which can be traced back to aural skills and that begin as early as after 6 months of active music making.

As adults, people with a background of music lessons and active music making show enhanced ability to pronounce a second language and hold sounds in memory (my own pilot work on this latter topic, memory, has convinced me it there is cause for much more study in this area).

Even more encouraging, older adults who have not played or sung for decades show heightened fine-grained hearing compared to people who never made music as a child.

My conclusion therefore, is that active music involvement in childhood (in fact, any age) absolutely makes a difference. It will not boost IQ, but it will contribute to the development of a multitude of skills that make a difference to a child’s experience of education and that as an adult they can then go on to reap for a lifetime.

Happy music making!

Musical times, they are a-changin’…

Hello, dear reader. This week I thought I would write about the changing world of defining and measuring musicality. Once upon a time it was a simple case of asking someone how many years they had been training as a musician. Maybe you might stretch to how often they had practised in the past or now. But essentially, that was it; one or two numbers which defined an individual’s musicality.

Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians. 1921

And we learned a lot  using this method. If it did not work, if it did not throw up fascinating group differences, then it would have disappeared a long time ago. But the fact is that it fostered decades of interesting breakthroughs in our understanding of how exposure to music and musical training can influence our cognitive abilities, brain function and even our approach to life. But even those who advoate this approach will admit, it has limitations.

It is time to think of a new way to to explore musicality, that will allow us to build upon the findings we have already acquired in comparing musicians and non-musicians.

So where do we go from here? Let’s think of a few stimulating questions:

Is years of training the only way to define a musician? What about the type of instrument they play and their experiences of practise and performance?A few years ago there was a series of really interesting papers in the music education field that looked at the differences in practise and learning strategies, and how they mapped onto achievements (e.g. studies by Stephanie Pitts and Gary McPherson) Why are we not considering those types of factors in general musicianship?

And, moreover, how useful is a comparison between musical experts and the rest of us; those of us who bash out a few tunes now and again or who enjoy belting out a good tune in the shower?  I, for example, had a very unique adn rousing version of ‘Dance with Me Tonight‘ going on this morning.Yep, I know, not very sophisticated. But boy, that song has great bounce!

Studies of musical expertise have their place in the academic literature, no doubt, as does any examiniation of human expertise. For example, studies of memory experts proved to be key to unlocking the secrets of mnemonics, tricks that we can use to expand what we hold in memory. And the exploration of such techinques, finding out how they work and why, teaches us a lot about the way that memory functions in general.You can see more about that in my video lecture on musical memory here.

But music is part of human life in so many ways, and musical expertise is just one of the ways that we express our musical abiliites, passions and curisoities. How can we reflect ‘musicality’ in the wider sense so that we can understand more about how our engagment with musical sounds in mulitple ways influences the way we develop both in brain and body?

There are a number of new techniques and tests that are emerging in the literature which promise to take both the study of expertise and musicality to a new level. I can’t talk about them all here, and no doubt there are some that I have  not come across as yet. If you know of any then please feel free to leave a comment and let us know. But here is a short list of 3 new studies in this area:

1) The Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index or Gold MSI. The Gold MSI has been developed with the BBC and the initial data was gathered through their ‘How Musical Are You?’ project, which you can still take if you like. The aim is to create a battery of tests that measures all the everyday parts of musicality experience that go beyond musical training and performance. There are also tests that look at general aspects of musical perception and memory, which can develop simply through exposure to music. The test is still in development but it is an exciting move towards a more universal measure of musicality

2) The Musical Ear Training (MET) test was developed by researchers at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. On each trial participants hear two melodies and must say ‘same’ or ‘different’. The test measures melody and rhythm perception. This is important for our idea of general musicality, as hearing skills can develop through simple musical exposure as well as through training. Click here for access to the original paper. The 20 minute test  gives a continum of ability across both musicians and nonmusicians, so it may prove a valuable tool for measuring musicality even if a person has never picked up an instrument.

Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns

3) The Brain responses. There are a number of imaging and EEG techniques that allow sceintists to distinguish degrees of auditory brain response; to quickly assess the power of your musical ear and musical brain. These include the brain’s response to oddball sounds in the environment, as quickly as 100ms after the sound is heard (the MMN paradigm by Peter Vuust) and the frequency following response of the brain stem (Image: see work by Nina Kraus). It is too early yet to determine whether these techniques will equip us with another measure of musicality (or even potential musicality) but the possibilties are exciting.

In the end, I think it is unlikely that any one test can capture the whole concept of how musical we are, and that is why it is great to have options that explore our ears, brains, memories, habits and hobbies. The new age of defining and understanding musicality will allow us to explore how real everyday musical exposure, curiosity and passion influences the way we think and behave.

And, just to finish, here is the source of inspiration for this weeks blog and, as a result, my current earworm. A spot of Dylan, though a cover in this case as you can’t get the original for free. Wishing you a lovely week, wherever the music takes you. :-)