You may recall the 90s phenomenon “The Mozart Effect,” which claimed that listening to Mozart in particular would make children smarter. The governor of Georgia even proposed that the state budget include a classical CD for every newborn. Alas! the finding that the claim was based on couldn’t be replicated, so the idea of a musical shortcut to intelligence got demoted to the status of myth.
While passive listening doesn’t do much for intelligence after all, study after study illustrates the positive effects of musical education on brain development. Most people learn instruments as children, and there are positive correlations between music instruction, verbal fluency, academic success, and even IQ, with the benefits from musical education corresponding to the intensity of training.
How come? Well, playing an instrument is hard: it demands a collection of skills including reading and processing musical notes while simultaneously carrying out the precise physical activity of playing the notes according to their designated timing. As Ewa A. Miendlarzewska and Wiebke J. Trost put it, sight-reading “calls for the simultaneous and sequential processing of a vast amount of information in a very brief time.” That’s why a particularly profound effect of musical training appears to hone a facet of rhythm: “temporal processing” improvements from musical education may account for why it helps people learn languages (including their native language), and become better readers. And, to address a common misconception, musical training doesn’t seem to transfer to math ability.
Interestingly, several studies suggest that there might be an optimal window for the benefits of musical training to take hold: ages 5-7 seemed to result in the most clear correlations to cognitive development. But the good news for those of our reading audience who are older than seven? The benefits of musical education are still evident when that education occurs well into adulthood. One study found that people over 60 who were randomly assigned to piano lessons for 6 months improved their working memory, perceptual speed, and motor coordination compared to a control group (Bugos et al. 2007). And even adults who actively listened to music in a music appreciation course improved their auditory cognition (or, listening ability) and increased their brains’ hippocampus activation, which supports the fluid intelligence that helps us solve problems in novel situations.
What if you’re not musically inclined? One facet of musical training that can be targeted separately is timing, which is important to developing a sense of rhythm. Lumosity has created a beta game that asks you to keep a beat. If you’d like to test your sense of timing, play Feel the Beat.