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Rae Largura: Does Music Training Make Us Smarter?

Legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz said he trained for four hours a day, and for many years. The question is, are his math and reading skills better because of it? Did he improve his cognitive skills every hour along the way? Does he have a higher IQ than someone who did not train musically?

There has been a long debate among researchers, psychologists, teachers and parents as to whether music training has definable positive effects on intelligence.

The 1990s fad the “Mozart effect” had new parents playing Eine kleine Nachtmusik to their newborns repeatedly. Society was convinced this would make our children smarter and that early childhood exposure to classical music had a beneficial effect on mental development.

In October of this year, the New York Times published an article stating that the connection between music training and high achievers is not a coincidence. Several high achievers quoted that music gave them an advantage over others when it came to creative thinking and superior focusing ability. Condoleeza Rice was a pianist. Alan Greenspan was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. Paul Allen played guitar. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, played the saxophone.

While some studies have drawn a positive conclusion to this debate, more studies suggest that music training will not raise IQ or enhance the brain's cognitive ability. A child’s ability to concentrate is probably not because of music training. In reality, it is that very disposition that attracted the child to the music lesson in the first place. Also in consideration is that learning does transfer if the processes involved are similar — Horowitz would probably be able to pick up another musical instrument and do quite well. A pro baseball player could probably hold his own on a football field, etc.

Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who specialized in music transfer, found that there is no association between improved brain cognition and music training. He found that just about any kind of mental stimulation before taking an IQ test would generate better results.

“Music changes how you feel, and how you feel changes your cognitive ability,” he points out.

Even with this new clarity, by no means should you stop taking your child to music lessons. If a child has a gift for or an attraction to music, fostering the love is the real benefit. Music training can play a very important role in general development. Playing an instrument, even from the earliest stages, involves many skills — visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic. Unlike many specialized activities, playing an instrument helps develop both sides of the brain at the same time, increasing both intellectual functions and physical coordination, patience and confidence. It can provide an outlet for self-expression.

The final conclusion may be, and nearly all experts agree, that studying music will make you smarter — at music.

Any subject, any grade: What is your question for a tutor? Email [email protected]. Ask a Tutor runs biweekly.

— Rae Largura is president of Leading Edge Tutors. The opinions expressed are her own.

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