Music Improves Cognitive Abilities… Mostly

As children, my brothers and I did not have too many restrictions in terms of what extra-curricular activities we participated in; the two requirements we had was that we had to play a sport, to get good exercise, and we had to play an instrument, because my mom said playing music helped with cognitive growth and development. As a result of this, my older brother and I can play guitar, and my younger brother can play piano. Besides gaining a neat party trick, I wonder if learning how to play an instrument actually helped develop our brains and attributed to our academic successes over the years.

The Null Hypothesis: Involvement with music* as a child does not aid cognitive abilities.

The Alternative Hypothesis: Involvement with music* as a child does aid cognitive abilities.

*I would like to clarify that when I say “Involvement with music”, I do not mean simply listening to music. What I mean is the child is involved in the creation of music in a structured setting; not simply listening to music in general in life.

A variety of studies took different approaches when looking at this question. A study conducted by three professors in the department of history at Sam Huston State University examined the effects of early music training on child cognitive development. Their study had a sample size of 71 children of the ages 4 to 6 years old. At the beginning of the experiment, all of the children took two tests; one was an assessment of their musical skills, and the other was a multi-part intelligence exam. After that, roughly have of the participants took part in a 75 minute long, parent involved, structured music curriculum. When the duration of the curriculum was met, both the students involved in the music curriculum, and those not retook the same exams from before the experiment. Post analysis of the results, it was shown that those involved in the music program had substantial gains in their music skill assessment, as well as the memory exam section of the intelligence exam.

The second source I found which looked at regards of this question, was a meta-analysis done by Jane M. Standley of Florida State University. This meta-analysis looked at music reading, music learning, and music participation’s involvement in improving one’s academic abilities. While meta-analysis do tend to be more reliable than solely looking at individual studies, this one especially because it even includes other meta-analysis in its review, this one acknowledged the difficulty in doing such a study for this question because the studies looked at a diverse array of how one approaches musical intervention in academics. With that being said, the meta-analysis showed that the effectiveness of these styles of incorporating music to enhance varies by study, and method used, but overall tended to produce positive results.

After reading through these studies, I had a few concerns. The first study was NOT a randomized control trial. In fact, there were several factors which went into their placement, many of which could be confounding variables. With the second study, it seemed to be going in too many directions. There were thirty studies involved, not many of which were using the same methods in their experiments. If this were broken up into more specific categories the results might have been more clear. The only reason that I could come up with for why they would keep it so large and generalized, and that is there could be a file drawer problem with the various types of studies involved.

Conclusion: Based on these cases, one could conclude that the alternative hypothesis is supported and  music involvement does enhance one’s cognitive abilities. Whether or not this is what attributed to my siblings and I’s academic triumphs however, is still unclear. There are too many confounding variables to say that for sure.

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1 thought on “Music Improves Cognitive Abilities… Mostly

  1. Jackie Michelle Tremblay

    I think another side to consider may be reverse causation. Maybe those with a certain level of cognitive ability play instruments or read music because they are smart enough to do so. Not to say that people who don’t play instruments are not smart, but that those who do play instruments have a mental ability that those who don’t lack. There are many people who try to learn to read music and it just doesn’t “click.” Maybe the same genes that allow for good test taking allow for ability to be a musician.

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