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The Mozart Effect myth: research finds music doesn't make you smarter

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Harvard study Samuel Mehr music does not make you smarter
Harvard study Samuel Mehr music does not make you smarter

Turns out you didn't miss anything by quitting piano lessons. New research presented in a pair of studies conducted by Samuel Mehr, a Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral student, finds that teaching children music doesn't make them smarter.

According to Mehr, 80 percent of American adults think that music improves a child’s grades or intelligence. This belief can be traced back to one 1993 study published in Nature that looked at the "Mozart Effect" and claimed that after listening to music, subjects performed better on spacial tasks. The study was later debunked, but the damage was already done. According to Chip Heath, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, the word of that study spread like wildfire, and was distorted in the process.

"There's no scientific research linking music and intelligence in infants."

"People were less and less likely to talk about the Mozart Effect in the context of college students who were the participants in the original study, and they were more likely to talk about it with respect to babies — even though there's no scientific research linking music and intelligence in infants," Heath said.

Dozens of studies since then have looked into the effects of music on intelligence. Mehr decided to start his experiments by testing the effects of music education that happens everyday. His first experiment featured 29 parents and four-year-old children — the parents took music aptitude tests and the kids took vocabulary tests. They were then assigned to one of two classrooms, one with music training and one with visual arts training.

One of the key differences between Mehr's experiment and similar studies is that Mehr didn't test for IQ — instead he tested for vocabulary, mathematics, and two spacial tasks.

"We tested four specific domains of cognition," Mehr told the Harvard Gazette. "If there really is an effect of music training on children’s cognition, we should be able to better detect it here than in previous studies, because these tests are more sensitive than tests of general intelligence."

Music teaches us about being human

The results showed no improvement in cognition for kids who were taught music. While the music group did perform slightly better at one spacial task, there wasn't much of a difference between either group in cognition, nor vocabulary or mathematics. Mehr then conducted a second study with a larger group, and found the same results.

So unfortunately for many helicopter parents eager to get their children into music for its brain benefits, it looks like that myth's being put to rest. But even if music doesn't scientifically make you smarter, we know it serves a greater purpose in kids' lives: music teaches us about being human, about human emotions, and about different cultures, and you can't slap an IQ number on that knowledge.