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Music Psychology
Rachel Tan (635953)

Music Makes You Smarter

MUSI20149: Music Psychology

Rachel Tan (635953)

Part One

My parents set me up with music lessons very early on in my life. As is the norm in Asian
communities, especially in Malaysia, my parents had me taking piano lessons on a
weekly basis at the age of four years old. They were firm believers that learning a music
instrument would improve my intelligence and give me the upper hand in my future
endeavors. Thus my decade long of musical lessons began.

From as early as I could remember, my parents had to force me to attend my music
lessons. I clearly remember on my eighth birthday, my mother and music teacher had to
essentially force me out of the car to attend my lesson. By then I had started to despise
going to these strict lessons, under which I was compelled to hammer out scales, chord
progressions and exam pieces just so that I could tackle one piano exam after another.

Basically these lessons were not treated as a form of enjoyment or an outlet for
expression, but rather stepping stones to reach the ultimate goal of completing all 8
grades of piano. My parents viewed this success as an indicator of ones intellect, i.e. if I
managed to pass all 8 ABRSM piano exams, I am that much smarter of a person.

It is this notion that music makes you smarter that I will discuss. Why do parents,
educators and researchers all tout the importance and benefits associated with music
education? I have no doubt that the countless hours spent practicing, learning and
performing impacted and changed me in a multitude of ways. However, it is arguable
whether the changes were positive or negative. The years of piano playing not only built
my resentment towards my parents from the pressure they were placing on me, but also
fostered feelings of stress and anxiety from the fear of underachieving. Nevertheless,
saying that, I am not against music education for young children, as I do believe that

MUSI20149: Music Psychology

Rachel Tan (635953)

under the correct circumstances and with the appropriate delivery method, the outcome
can be positive.

Part Two

The empirical evidence relating to improving ones brain through music education is
extensive and cogent, with many researchers emphasizing its powerful educative effects
on the personal, social and academic development of children.

Research into the specific effects of music education has revealed that secondary school
students involved in instrumental music training displayed considerably higher levels of
mathematics competency and superior verbal memory (Catterall et al., 1999; Ho,
Cheung & Chan, 2003, as cited in Gill & Rickard, 2012). Expanding on this topic,
Morrison (1994) and Wallick (1998, as cited in Vitale, 2011) also reported that when
comparing music students to non-music students, on average, music students received
higher grades in Mathematics, English, History and Science, and generally expected
better academic recognition. Similarly, research also linked consistent music exposure
to enhanced pre-reading and writing skills as well as improved memory in primary and
pre-school level children (Cheek & Smith, 1999; Fujioka et al., 2006, cited in Gill &
Rickard, 2012). Research by Morton (1990, cited in Gill & Rickard, 2012) also
corroborated that short periods of passive exposure to music can also enhance memory
in children and adolescents.

Furthermore, in two comprehensive studies conducted by Schellenberg (2004, 2006,
cited in Deg, Kubicek & Schwarzer, 2015), it was revealed that music lessons not only
increased intelligence, but also left a long-term imprint on the brain by altering its
anatomy and functioning. Supporting research from Skoe and Kraus (2012) showed that

MUSI20149: Music Psychology

Rachel Tan (635953)

approximately 3 years of music lessons during an individuals childhood would result in

a profound impact on the nervous system, such that neural changes will linger into
adulthood (approximately 7 years later).

With all these compelling and expansive evidence on the benefits of music education,
the belief that music makes you smarter has thus become entrenched into public
awareness, courtesy of the hype from popular media, governments and music education

In a society where intelligence is highly revered, particularly logical-mathematical
intelligence, this notion that music makes you smarter has resulted in a shift in the
perception and feelings about music educations. So much so that studying music for the
sake of learning and enjoying music itself has been downplayed in favor of its ancillary

Demorest & Morrison (2000) makes an interesting point, highlighting the fact that when
the general population speaks about the potential benefits of music and music
education, it is implied that smarter means being smarter at something else other than
music (p.33). Further insights by Gee (2006) and Hope (2004, cited in Vitale, 2011) also
contend that the intrinsic values of music have been obfuscated by its secondary
benefits. In many schools across the Western nation, the purpose of music education has
been diminished to an extent where it only represents a conduit to assist students in
performing better in other more important subjects such as Mathematics and Science
(Walicki, 2010, cited in Vitale, 2011).

Based on my past experience with music education, I find this perception particularly
disheartening. As stated by Schellenberg (2013), Music makes us human. It doesnt

MUSI20149: Music Psychology

Rachel Tan (635953)

need to be justified in terms of improving your language skills or your IQ you should
justify music just for those reasons in that it makes you a deeper person that has a
richer array of experiences. I would like to think that my music learning experience
wouldve been less miserable and more pleasurable had it not been completely
shrouded by my parents conviction that music makes you smarter. Moreover, I
question the actual impact of music education on my intelligence and the influence it
had on my academic performance. I have always been a fairly mediocre student with
particularly poor mathematical skills.

As such, I would like to explore literature that questions the music makes you smarter
notion. As stated by Demorest & Morrison (2000), we cannot conclude that music has a
direct impact on the intellectual abilities of students, however we can conclude that
there are specific characteristics attributed to music students which promote them to
prosper academically (p. 33).

Although music lessons could result in intellectual benefits, it is also likely that the
children participating in music lessons are inherently more intelligent than those who
do not take lessons or persist in their training. Cutietta (2001, cited in Vitale, 2011)
contends that students who perform better in their studies are more willing to
undertake music training based on the high-levels of determination and willpower
required to musically perform. In other words, the correlation between music
education and intelligence is essentially incidental.

In an experimental study conducted by Schellenberg (2004, cited in Deg, Kubicek &
Schwarzer, 2015) investigating into the association between music training and IQ, it
was revealed that music lessons caused modest improvements in the childs overall
intelligence. However, there are flaws in this study. Despite the studys experimental

MUSI20149: Music Psychology

Rachel Tan (635953)

design allowing room for assumptions of causation, it was not carried out under
naturalistic conditions (Deg, Kubicek & Schwarzer, 2015).

Firstly, it is very difficult to study the long-term effects of music lessons using an
experimental design because these participating children cannot be coerced into
taking lessons over an extended period (Deg, Kubicek & Schwarzer, 2015). Moreover,
longer experimental studies are likely to produce results that are difficult to infer from
due to concerns on attrition and internal validity (Schellenberg, 2006).

Secondly, because the parents of the participants did not have to contribute financially
in terms of their childrens music lessons, they were less motivated to encourage
practicing (Schellenberg, 2004, cited in Deg, Kubicek & Schwarzer, 2015). This is a
particular important factor to note because studies have shown that parental support
plays a significant role in cultivating positive outcomes (Epstein, 1992; Jeynes 2007,
cited in Ho, 2009).

My parents were very critical and demanding throughout my whole music learning
phase. According to Vygotskys theory, it is crucial that there is a suitable adult present
to facilitate children in accomplishing challenging tasks (Berk & winsler, 1995; Vgotsky,
1930/1978, cited in Youm, 2013). I definitely agree with this theory because if it
werent for my parents determination and insistence in pushing me through this whole
process, I wouldve given up easily.

Nevertheless, I am still adamant on the fact that children are in a particularly vulnerable
stage in their lives and thus, can easily be manipulated into undertaking activities that
they might not be interested in. It is important that parents know when to yield and
reassure instead of pressuring their child into participating in music lessons.

MUSI20149: Music Psychology

Rachel Tan (635953)

Moreover, because of the undeniably complex nature of the relationship between music
education and intelligence, parents and the general population should hence eliminate
the narrow-minded mentality that music makes you smarter. As asserted by Cutietta
(2001, cited in Vitale, 2011), I think the safest conclusion from the research is that any
nonmusical benefits from studying music are probably secondary and small. Learning
just about anything has some spin-offs (p.12). Music at its core is a ubiquitous entity
fundamental to the human experience.

Part Three

Although the research from part two clarified some skepticism on the notion music
makes you smarter, future research is still necessary to extend our understanding on
this topic.

Whilst investigations by Deg, Kubicek and Schwarzer (2015) partly explains how
improved performance on intelligence can be attributed to the positive influence music
lessons have on executive functions, it is still unclear whether this association is direct
or mediated by a third variable.

In terms of the relationship between music lessons and nonmusical skills, are such
associations both systematic (i.e., evident across individuals) and music specific (i.e.,
different from associations with other out-of-school activities)? Are the observed
associations sufficiently large enough to warrant practical significance?

Moreover, whilst researchers have tried to maintain as many similar attributes between
participants in their experiments, such as age and socioeconomic backgrounds, there
are still many important variables that need to be taken into account. For example,

MUSI20149: Music Psychology

Rachel Tan (635953)

factors such as (1) the cultural background of the child, (2) the level of parental
involvement, and (3) the magnitude of interest from the participants in music learning,
are all very important.

Will the cultural background of the child impact on the association music education have
on intelligence? Could their practices and beliefs affect the way they perceive music
education and thus the sub sequential influence music has on their mind?

Will results differ between children who have supportive parents and those who dont?
Will there be a difference in the impact of music education on academic performance
between children who are relatively unengaged and uninterested in music, versus
children who are highly motivated and passionate about music? This investigation of
course must ensure that the amount of practicing and learning undertaken by the
children must be maintained at equal levels.

MUSI20149: Music Psychology

Rachel Tan (635953)

Deg, F., Kubicek, C., & Schwarzer, G. (2011). Music Lessons and Intelligence: A Relation
Mediated by Executive Functions. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal,
29(2), 195-201.
Demorest, S. M., & Morrison, S. J. (2000). Does Music make You Smarter? Music educators
Journal, 87(2), 33-58
Gill, A., & Rickard, N. (2012). Non-Musical Benefits of School-Based Music Education and
Training. In Rickard & McFerran (Eds) Lifelong Engagement with Music, 59-74,
New York: Nova Science Publishers
Schellenberg, E. (2006). Long-term positive associations between music lessons and IQ.
Journal Of Educational Psychology, 98(2), 457-468.
Schellenberg, G. (2013). Music and mind: Can Mozart really sharpen your neural
connections? [Audio Podcast]. Melbourne University. Retrieved from
Skoe, E., & Kraus, N. (2012). A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by
Musical Training in Childhood. Journal Of Neuroscience, 32(34), 11507-11510.
Youm, H. K. (2013). Parents Goals, Knowledge, Practices and Needs Regarding Music
Education for Their Young Children in South Korea. Journal of Research in Music

Education, 61(3), 280-302.

Vitale, J. (2015). Music Makes You Smarter: A New Paradigm for Music Education?.
Canadian Journal Of Education, 34(3).