(Photo: Jorge Silva/Reuters)
Early music education can be a great tool for teaching discipline, confidence-building and creative expression. And according to Harvard researchers, more than 80 per cent of American adults believe that music training improves their children's grades or intelligence too. But a new study from those researchers suggests there is little proof that music lessons provide cognitive benefits.
The study was published in the journal PLOS One.
Samuel Mehr, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said in a press release that there is "very little evidence supporting that idea that music classes enhance children's cognitive development."
Mehr noted there have been dozens of studies exploring a possible link between cognitive performance and music — mostly traced back to a since-debunked study about a so-called "Mozart effect." (That study concluded that after listening to music, test subjects performed better on spatial tasks.)
Mehr and his colleagues pored over the past literature about music and cognition and found only five studies that used randomized, controlled trials — considered to be the gold standard for scientific experimentation. Only one of those trials showed an unequivocally positive effect. But it was such a small effect that it was barely statistically significant.
So they did two of their own randomized, controlled trials. The first trial included children who were taught music over six weeks while a second group were given visual-arts lessons. The researchers found no statistically significant differences between how the groups performed on vocabulary, mathematics and two spatial tasks.
The researchers then repeated the experiment with a larger group of kids, with one group getting music lessons and the other group getting no training. Again the researchers found no significant differences in performance on four assessments.
"There were slight differences in performance between the groups, but none were large enough to be statistically significant," Mehr said.
Although he said his research shows no link between music and educational success, Mehr is careful not to dismiss music’s overall value in schooling.
“There’s a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits,” he said, noting that “we don’t teach kids Shakespeare because we think it will help them do better on the SATs, we do it because we beileve Shakespeare is important.”