Are Musicians Smarter than You?

Does music training really make us smarter?

Posted Sep 26, 2011

Okay...that's probably not true. But it is a headline I've seen pop up on occasion. And it's not totally unfounded: research continues to be published that supports the idea that being a musician can have certain non-musical benefits.

What kinds of benefits? Here's a quick run-down...

Hearing

It seems that being a musician may help ward off age-related hearing loss. A study recently published in the journal Psychology and Aging found that life-long musicians have less age-related hearing problems than non-musicians. The researchers attributed this to a "use it or lose it" type of phemonenon, as musicians are regularly required to use their auditory skills.

This claim was also supported by an article published last February in The Hearing Journal, an audiology trade journal. The author was Northwestern professor and researcher Dr. Nina Kraus. Her research indicates that musicians may have stronger auditory attention and auditory working memory skills. This allows musician to, for example, hear better and more accurately during a cocktail party.

Learning and Memory

A study came out early this year that looked at three groups of seniors with different levels of music training and tested them on multiple measures of cognitive performance. One finding? The musicians performed better on tasks of both verbal and visual memory than non-musicians (Hanna-Pladdy & MacKay 2011). From a practical standpoint, this means that the musicians in the group would likely be able to remember new names more easily and accurately (verbal memory) and would likely be able to work better based on what they see (visual memory).

Language

There seems to be a link between music training and improved language performance, even in children. A study published in March 2011 reported findings that within a group of 194 third-grade boys, those who took music lessons performed better on reading and spelling tests than those who did not (Hille et al., 2011).

There is also research (Wong et al., 2007) to suggest that musicians have a more finely-tuned system for encoding pitch. In other words, it is easier for musicians to detect changes in how high or low a sound is. What does this mean for language? It means that it may be easier for musicians to learn new languages because they can more readily detect the auditory differences.

Mathematics

Doing well on spelling tests isn't the only benefit to music training. It seems that students who have music training do better on their math tests, too. That's what Cheek and Smith found in 1999, when they tested young musicians and non-musicians using the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Those 8th graders with at least two years of music lessons performed better on the math portions of the test that those who didn't.

But I Listen to Music. Doesn't That Count?

For the record, "being a musician" does not mean you simply listen to music. That won't do. "Being a musician" requires that you have some sort of music training. Perhaps you know how to play an instrument or you sing in a choir. What's important is that you somehow create and learn how to make music.

Additionally, as a general rule, the earlier you start the better...and the longer you go the better. The benefits seem to continue piling on the earlier you start music lessons and the longer you take them. That said, don't be discouraged if it's later in your life and you decide to pick up a new instrument. It's never too late! and there are loads of benefits you can reap by doing so.

"Being a musician" does not mean you need to be a professional musician...or even have a career in the music-making profession (like I do as a music therapist). We can't all be Stings, Beyonces, or Yo-Yo Mas. Like I mentioned above, the key is for you to create music. Learn the guitar. Play in a community band. Sing in a choir. Take adult music lessons (yes! that's possible). Encourage your children to take lessons.

These studies mentioned here are few and vary in terms of who they looked at and what they were measuring. But it provides a broad overview of the fascinating and diverse effects music training can have on all of us.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website, www.MusicTherapyMaven.com, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

References

Cheek, J.M. & Smith, L.R. (1999). Music training and mathematics achievement. Adolescence, 34(136), 759-61.

Hanna-Pladdy, B. & MacKay, A. (2011). The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology, 25(3), 378-386.

Hille, K., Gust, K., Bitz, U., & Kammer, T. (2011). Associations between music education, intelligence, and spelling ability in elementary school. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 7(7), 1-6.

Kraus, N. (2011). Musical training gives edge in auditory processing. The Hearing Journal, 64(2), 10-16

Wong, P., Skoe, E., Russo, N., Dees, T., & Kraus, N. (2007). Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns., Nature Neuroscience, March 2007, DOI: 10.1038/nn1872

Zendel, B.R. & Alain, C. (2011). Musicians experience less age-related decline in central auditory processing. Psychology and Aging, 2011, DOI: 10.1037/a0024816