Music won’t make your kids smarter—but those piano lessons could still be worth it

If he grows up to be a Mariachi you’ve done your job.
If he grows up to be a Mariachi you’ve done your job.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Bad news, parents: all those hours of piano and violin lessons you’ve paid for aren’t going to make your children any smarter. A new paper by Harvard education researcher Samuel Mehr argues that there’s little evidence to the idea that learning music helps children develop better cognitive skills.

Parents around the world are spending more on their children for extra classes and tutors—anything that promises to give their child a leg up in school and beyond. The average amount US parents spend on one child has doubled between 1973 and 2006, to $2,217 per child (p.33), adjusted for inflation. And the greatest amount of investment now takes place during a child’s early years instead of their teenage years, as was the case before the 1990s, according to a 2011 study (p.25) from researchers at the University of Sydney and the University of Pennsylvania. US parents of children born in 2012 are likely to have spent more than those of children born the the year before, according to government data.

A fair chunk of that money is going toward things like music lessons. Ever since a 1993 study published in the journal Nature found that children who listened to Mozart performed better at spatial tasks, toymakerschildcare providers, and music schools have been capitalizing on the idea that music makes kids smarter. According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, as of 2010, employment for “self enrichment teachers” like music teachers, is expected to grow about 21% over the decade to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations in the country. Last year, a study by a nonprofit that promotes music, NAMM, said running a K-12 music program in one US school district between 2009 and 2010 cost about $187 a year, per child—a negligible cost, the organization argued, given that music helps students in other school subjects, especially in math.

But the argument for spending more on teaching kids music—at least for the sake of improving intelligence—is starting to fall apart in the scientific community. In 2007, the German government’s research ministry debunked the so-called “Mozart Effect” promoted by the Nature article. Mehr’s recent study, which followed 74 parents and their children—half of who were trained in classical music for several classes while the others studied visual arts—found that music didn’t help kids perform any better on math, vocabulary, and spatial reasoning tests.

Moreover, of the dozens of studies that have been done on the possible connection between music and cognitive skills, Mehr’s team found only five used randomized trials—the standard for determining causality between child development and “educational interventions” like musical training. Of those, only one established a positive link to intelligence—an increase of 2.7 IQ points—barely enough to be statistically significant, Mehr’s study said.

The scientific debate continues, with other studies arguing that music lessons help protect the brain against dementia or develop the ability to discern complex sounds, essential to learning languages. What is certain is that learning music can inspire creativity, discipline, and confidence in children, but so can learning other hobbies. So what reason is there to listen to your little violinist’s 13th attempt at “Go Tell Aunt Rhody“? Maybe just because they love it.