Does Playing an Instrument Make you Smarter

Over the course of my life, I have heard that playing a musical instrument makes you smarter, and as a potential Music minor, I would like to believe that. Music is a language of its own, and it is universally understood, so it would make sense that learning this “language” has similar effects as a concrete language would.

Because many people, like me, are interested in this question, many studies have been done to see if playing music does, in fact, optimize your brain function. One study, conducted at the University of Montreal, had two groups, one of trained musicians, and one of non musicians. Both groups were subjected to a test where they received one touch sensation and two sound sensations. Because musicians are used to reading music, playing it, and listening for the other musicians that they are performing with, they were able to differentiate the touch and sound sensations, reporting that they felt one touch and heard two sounds.  The non musicians fell for this illusion, though, and believed that they were feeling the touch twice.

Another study that was done having to do with rhythm, which is essential to playing an instrument. Researchers at Northwestern University put together a group of 100 teenagers, and had them listen to a metronome and tap along, recording their rhythmical accuracy. After this test, the researchers hooked up the teens to an EEG, and had them listen to a specific repeated sound for half an hour. After, they calculated how similarly the brain responded to each of these sounds. When they juxtaposed the two tests, there was a clear correlation between the accurate tappers and precise brain reactions. John Iverson, a brain researcher independent of this study said, .”This study adds another piece to the puzzle in the emerging story suggesting that musical rhythmic abilities are correlated with improved performance in non-music areas, particularly language.” This study shows a direct correlation between musical ability and brain activity.

A third study, from the Society for Neuroscience, reflected similar findings, and discovered that children who received musical training before the age of seven reaped the greatest benefits. In China, a group of 48 students between the ages of 19 and 21 were gathered. All of them had at least a year of formal music education, beginning  sometime between ages 3 and 15. Researches examined the volume of grey matter, the surface area, and the folding index of the brain. The students who started before age seven had a noticeable advantage in all of these categories, and also had a thicker cortex. These ares of the brain lead to benefits in executive function, language skills, auditory skills, and self awareness.

A second part of this same study, conducted in Stockholm, Sweden, looked at the benefits of improvisation to the brain. Improvisation is hugely important in music, especially in jazz, where the entire style relies on a musicians individual improvisations. Using MRI, they took jazz piano players and measured frontal lobe activity. In the more experienced improvisors,  higher connectivity and lower regional activity was shown. This means that these musicians were able to effortlessly create complex patterns that resulted in beautiful music. The brain is not very active during this state, showing that ease musicians are so well trained in their craft that they have a feeling of subconsciousness when they play, which is incredible to the layman.

All four of these studies work towards supporting the claim that playing a musical instrument does, in fact, make you smarter. 12080147_10153752471794260_6326312860598736951_o

This graphic shows the many ways which the brain is affected when one plays piano, leading to advancements of nearly every region of the brain. If all of this is not enough evidence to convince you that playing a musical instrument makes you smarter, the look at this list of widely respected geniuses that played an instrument:

Albert Einstein: Violin and Piano

Leonardo Di Vinci: Created many musical instruments, including the flute, played the lyre, and many other instruments

Thomas Jefferson: Violin

Galileo Galilei: Lute, and discovered the correlation between string length and pitch.

For all these reasons, I think it is safe to conclude that music has a strong relationship with brain activity, and does in fact make you smarter. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence for this, so as a parent, I will most certainly be giving my children music lessons, and making sure to start before the age of seven. I think every school should require music classes, just as math and science are required. This should be common sense, in my opinion, for music is a fun way that you can improve yourself for a lifetime, and there is no harm brought from it. Music has played a huge role in my life, and I do not see why the same should not be said for every student in this country.

3 thoughts on “Does Playing an Instrument Make you Smarter

  1. Emma Kilyk

    Interesting topic! You asked the question, “does musical ability make you smarter,” and have found a link between musical ability and intelligence in humans. However, I want to know whether reverse causation is an explanation for the link between these two variables. It is entirely plausible that being innately more intelligent could cause someone to have more musical ability, considering the cognitive and motor abilities it requires to play an instrument. Therefore, what I am asking is this: “does being more intelligent cause increased musical ability?” The researchers of this study were wondering the same thing, and questioned whether there were any “pre-existing neural, cognitive, or motoric markers for musical ability.” When they compared children who were just beginning music lessons to children that were not beginning music lessons, they found no differences between the groups and “no correlations… between music perceptual skills and any brain or visual–spatial measures.” Thus, this evidence does not provide us basis to support the hypothesis that more intelligent people have more musical ability. However, while the evidence that you found supports the notion that there is a link between musical ability and intelligence, it cannot definitively prove that one caused the other first. It is still plausible that someone who is innately more intelligent also has innate musical abilities, or is able to acquire musical abilities easier. Thus, we are trapped in a classic case of ‘the chicken or the egg,’ and until more studies are conducted, we cannot say which came first: the intelligence or the musical ability.

  2. Yu Zhang

    I think it’s really good that you find several studies to prove your point, as we learnt in class, the more experimental studies we look into, the more likely we will reach the correct conclusion. However, I believe the first study cannot substantiate the point very well. It focuses on the objects’ reaction to one touch sensation and two sound sensations, and it should be normal for trained musicians be do better on the sound reaction than non musicians, since they have more exposure to music and they should be more sensitive to sounds. Thus I think this study doesn’t do well on controlling third variables, and it may not convince people that music helps to develop the brain.

    As for the scientists and the instruments they can play, I don’t think it is a tenable illustration of evidence. This may suffer from the Texas Shooter Problem as we talked about in class. What if since so many cases are looked at and we find some interesting correlations between the two variables we are studying? What if it is an accident that these scientists are superior in scientific field and also happen to play instruments? We cannot tell. Also, it may be better if you express some of your opinions and thoughts on the studies instead of just concluding them.

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