Music and Learning: Can Music Really Boost Kids' Brainpower?

Is There Such a Thing as a "Mozart Effect?"

music and learning - three girls playing violin outside
Learning to play a musical instrument can boost learning and brain development in kids. Marc Romanelli/Getty Images

Most parents have heard the term "Mozart Effect." It refers to the idea that merely listening to classical music can boost intelligence, especially in babies. The belief was sparked by a 1993 study led by Frances Rauscher, PhD, in which researchers played a Mozart piano sonata to a small group of college students and then asked them to complete a spatial reasoning test. They then compared these results to scores of spatial reasoning tests taken after listening to 10 minutes of a relaxation tape or silence and found that the group exposed to Mozart scored measurably higher, even though these cognitive gains only lasted about 10 to 15 minutes.

From this narrow finding, the media, parents, and even legislators made the leap that simply playing music to babies and children and adults made them more intelligent (something that Dr. Rauscher and her associates never suggested). Books, CDs, and other baby and child products touting the so-called "Mozart effect" became wildly popular. Since then, various studies have examined the idea that just playing some classical music to children can make them smarter and found this theory to be unlikely and unsupported by any real evidence. A number of studies, including a December, 2013 paper by researchers at Harvard University, found that music does not enhance the cognitive abilities of children. The real story behind the link between music and learning is a little more complex than "Mozart makes you smarter": While there doesn't seem to be a straightforward relationship between listening to or learning classical music and an increase in intelligence, research has shown that there are a number of clear benefits to learning to play music.

Music and Learning: The Real Story

It’s easy to see why so many parents were willing to pay for all those music CDs, books, and videos championing the benefits of the "Mozart Effect"--it was the promise of cognitive benefit for their babies with little effort and no drawback. But now that we know it's not such a simple equation as "listening to Mozart=increased intelligence," it's worth noting that solid research is showing that there is a link between music and learning--it's just not what we thought.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that there isn't one single "intelligence" in a person that can be measured with a single IQ test (It's now known that we have "multiple intelligences," including musical intelligence), studies show it’s not that passively listening to classical music that makes you smarter; it's that music learning opens doorways to other learning and strengthens the skills kids will use the rest of their lives in school and beyond. Some of the many ways music may enhance kids' learning and overall development:

  • Promotes discipline (They practice with their instruments, learn to get ready for lessons and performances, and follow schedules.)
  • Builds self-esteem
  • Encourages concentration
  • Improves coordination
  • Boosts memory
  • Helps kids' brains process language  
  • Improves reading skills
  • Increases vocabulary
  • Imparts joy (Making and listening to music can be fun.) 
  • Encourages a love of learning
  • Gives kids a means to express creativity
  • Offers children social benefits (It’s a great way to connect with other musicians and play together and enjoy music together.)

    In young children, music seems to play a particularly important role in language development. Research shows that music seems to strengthen kids’ natural abilities to decode sounds and words. Music, particularly learning to read and play music, seems to be linked to a number of benefits for kids, including better processing of language and improved reading skills. And how well a child processes the parts of sound—pitch, timing, and timbre—can be a fairly good predictor of how well that child will read, according to research conducted by Nina Kraus, PhD, a professor of neurobiology and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern. The link between music and learning is clear: Being able to distinguish between similar sounds such as "bag" and "gag" is important for language development and skills like keeping rhythm has been linked to reading ability.

    Kraus has also pointed out that sound processing in the brain is a measure of how healthy the brain is. Not being able to process sound, such as being able to distinguish and hear a friend’s voice in an environment with lots of sounds, like a loud restaurant or party, can indicate a problem, such as autism or learning delays. Research also suggests that kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may be at a disadvantage; poverty and a mother’s education level were show to be linked to a child’s ability to process sound.

    Research at the Auditory Neuroscience Lab has shown that people who play music can hear better in noisy environments than those who do not play music. The sounds we are exposed to change our brain, according to the research by just the way exercise can help the body become physically fit, music can help the brain achieve auditory fitness, which are linked to many learning benefits. The researchers make an insightful analogy between music and physical activity: Just as exercise is important for physical health, music plays a key role in toning the brain for auditory fitness. Music training in kids can play an important role in developing crucial skills in children that will help them learn, such as listening, paying attention, concentration, memory, and reading ability.

    How to Get More Music Into Your Child’s Life

    The message to remember about music and learning is this: Kids shouldn't be expected to listen to music to make them smarter, but we should expose them to music because it's good for their overall development. Introduce your child to a wide variety of good music, from Miles Davis to Yo-Yo Ma to composers like Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, and yes, Mozart. Encourage your child to find an instrument she loves and to try to challenge herself to play it as well as she can through practice and lessons.

    It may take a bit of searching to see what your child likes (he might love the cello or piano, or he may discover that he’s more of a trumpet player or a guitarist or drummer). Or he may prefer learning all about how composers make music and how songs and symphonies are structured. Find something that your child likes and look for a teacher. (If your school doesn’t provide music lessons, try to find community programs or discounted group rates at local music schools.) Try to find a music teacher or program that can help your child learn about different types of instruments and music styles to see what he might be interested in. And most of all, let your child enjoy music for just the sake of enjoying it, not to influence learning to for some other goal.

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