More than 80% of Americans are convinced that music lessons improve their children's grades and intelligence. But two new randomized trials from Harvard are showing that it's simply not true.

Back in 1993, Nature published a study demonstrating a link between musical training in childhood and subsequent benefits to non-musical cognitive abilities (specifically, spatial-reasoning performance immediately following exposure to a Mozart piano sonata). This paper was eventually debunked, but not before trickling into the mass consciousness.

Indeed, this so-called Mozart Effect has been difficult, if not impossible to replicate in follow-up studies. What's more, few randomized control trials (RCTs) have been used to assess the impact of music lessons on child cognition (a standard for assessing causal effects of educational interventions on child development). Scientists have continued to explore this area, but there have been achingly few experiments done on the subject.

Looking to overcome this limitation, Harvard researcher Samuel Mehr and his colleagues conducted two RCTs with preschool children. They recruited dozens of parents and their 4-year-old children. After initial aptitude tests, parents and children were randomly assigned to one of two classes, one with music training and one focusing on visual arts. They also set up a control group.

After six weeks of class, the researchers evaluated the children's skills in four distinct cognitive areas (rather than IQ) in which older arts-trained students tend to excel. These areas were spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary.


The first experiment was very small, involving only 15 children in the musical group and 14 in the visual arts. The effects were so tiny that they were declared statistically insignificant. But the second, more conclusive, study, which involved 45 parents and their children, failed to produce any kind of measurable cognitive benefits.

"Overall, children provided with music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment," concluded the researchers in the subsequent study, which now appears in PLoS One. "The current report provides no consistent evidence for cognitive transfer from music training: preschool music classes did not cause detectable skill increases in the cognitive domains of spatial, linguistic, or numerical reasoning."

Read the entire study at PLOS ONE: "Two Randomized Trials Provide No Consistent Evidence for Nonmusical Cognitive Benefits of Brief Preschool Music Enrichment." Additional information provided by the Harvard Gazette.

Image: Andris Tkacenko.