Does Music Make Children Smarter?

I admit it. I have a classical radio station preset in my car and own the complete Baby Beethoven (and the other Baby Classical Composer) series of CDs. Even though I generally doubt that you can improve in an area without hard work, there is something compelling about the idea of the Mozart Effect – that listening to classical music makes a child smarter. I really want to believe in it. But is it true? The idea of the Mozart Effect started in the early 1990s when three researchers found that students who listened to Mozart performed better on IQ tests than peers who listened to relaxation music or silence. The media jumped on this phenomenon, dubbing it the “Mozart Effect.” Coverage generally neglected to mention that 15 minutes later, when retested, all the kids had the same scores. Still, the Mozart Effect spawned an industry that claimed that babies and toddlers would be smarter if they listened to classical music. However, in the years that followed, other researchers were unable to replicate the results. Still, parents may embrace the idea that classical music has positive benefits because little kids love music; it soothes and entertains. Dawn Prince-Cohee of Clayton believes she has seen a big difference in the development of her twin daughters because of music. “One of the first songs I sang to my daughters to soothe their cries was a silly, made up song to the tune of ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’ which goes through the letters of their names and associates a word with each letter,” Prince-Cohee says. “Now that they are almost 11 months old, they both light up when they hear this very familiar song. I have no doubt they will be able to spell their names very early as a result.” Perhaps part of the appeal of the Mozart Effect is that parents don’t need to possess any special skills for their kids to benefit. Something as simple as popping in a CD and getting a smarter kid in the harried, over-stressed world of parenting feels like a freebie. Brain Development Busy parents can take heart. Board-certified music therapist and licensed Kindermusik educator Catherine Szuch, who has a master’s degree in music therapy, recognizes the controversy behind claims that music makes kids smarter. But she also sees compelling evidence of music’s benefits on a daily basis. “In my experience, I have encountered very few, if any, children who don’t respond to music in at least a few different positive ways,” Szuch says. She also points out that there is scientific support for why music may offer advantages. According to Szuch, “There is an interesting body of research that has looked at neural connections in the brain in the early years of a child’s life. This theory maintains that there is a ‘critical time’ in early childhood where neural connections — synapses — are being made and formed at a very high rate. In fact, a 3-year-old has twice as many connections as an adult.” For parents who can’t find their keys or who walk into a room to get something and forget why they are there, it’s easy to recognize that this early brain plasticity goes away over time. Szuch adds, “This rate of neural connectivity plateaus, and then a ‘pruning’ process occurs where the lesser-used connections are lost. This usually happens as children reach their teenage years.” So providing musical experiences, especially at a young age, allows the brain to develop in areas where it wouldn’t without this exposure. Dale Purves, M.D., director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, agrees, saying, “There is a critical link between age of exposure and learning. I think almost all neurobiologists accept that the ability of cells to form connections with each other is easier earlier in life and diminishes with age.” Purves provides the example that most professional musicians begin their studies as children. “The connection between neurological cells is what allows us to learn anything. A decreased connection is what diminishes [our ability to quickly learn new things] as we get older,” he explains. And the range of experiences to which we expose our kids is meaningful. “The things we do know are how the nerve cells work and how experience can modify the behavior of nerve cells,” Purves says. The more opportunities and exposures cells get, the more fully those pathways develop. But does music really make kids smarter? Purves is not convinced that scientists really understand how to get an answer to that question. “Science hasn’t come to grips with intelligence: defining intelligence or getting adequate measure of intelligence,” he says. “A lot of people would say that IQ tests, for example, are inherently flawed.” Interestingly, each of Purves’ kids studied music. “You want your kids to have opportunity to show their potential talents,” he explains. A Positive Outlet and Influence Chapel Hill piano teacher and mother Kaylene Peets is impressed with what music tells her about the types of learners her students are. During the eight years she has taught piano, she has observed that some students are more gifted at memorization, some students need to have specific musical passages explained, and other kids shut down if she starts to talk. She sees how students apply this insight to their traditional schoolwork. “If you’ve learned how to be a good piano student, that small progress will get you far,” she says. “You have the ability to tune out things around you. Discipline is a huge part of both piano and schoolwork.” And it isn’t all about raw talent. “The kid that won’t give up goes far,” she says. And why wouldn’t music be a sort of magic bullet to help our kids? As Peets explains, “Music works across many areas of your brain: beauty, pattern recognition, muscle memory, etc.” Although she is not confident that music by itself makes kids smarter, her growing number of students has convinced her that parents may be buying into this philosophy. “It may account for the greater number of kids taking piano lessons,” she says. But she thinks the more likely reason is that studying piano allows kids to “have a great capacity to develop in many ways — intellectually, culturally, artistically.” Szuch adds, “The wonderful thing about music is that it is so adaptable. Change a song so it has meaning to your child, make it personal or situational, use a song or music to help with a difficult transition, etc. I think music has the potential to be an outlet for everyone; it’s just a question of finding the best and most meaningful way to make it happen.” Additional Research And for parents who are still holding out hope that music will create better thinkers, a 2004 study from the University of Toronto at Mississauga in Canada offers promise. Researchers randomly assigned 132 kids to free piano, drama or singing lessons. The students who studied piano scored higher on IQ tests. In 2005, researchers in cognitive development from Harvard and Boston College confirmed the findings of the Canadian study by publishing a paper about “Structural and functional differences in the brains of adult instrumental musicians compared to those of matched non-musician controls.” They found that the intensity and duration of the study of a specific instrument were important factors in the differences at the level of brain cells. In musicians, visual–spatial, verbal and mathematical performance was enhanced. So, Mozart Effect or no, I’m still pushing that classical music button in my car. If nothing else, my girls and I are surrounded by beautiful music. Robin Whitsell is a freelance writer and mother of three who lives in Chapel Hill. She can be reached at

Exposing Your Child to Music at Every Age Birth to 1 year Sing to your child. Find songs that have varied elements: quick and slow, high and low. Ease transitions with music. Consider group music classes. 1 to 4 years Try group music classes. Purchase CDs that have sing-along elements. Look for music that incorporates body motion – walking, stretching, free dancing. Elementary School Explore different types of music with different beats and instruments. Find music that requires specific body movements (hokey-pokey, head, shoulders, knees and toes). Attend live music performances with older elementary ages. Consider formal music lessons. Middle School Encourage continuing with formal music lessons and daily practice. Find a band or orchestra they can participate in. Experiment with different types of music: change genres or look for varied beats and instruments. Allow children to find music that expresses their interests. Attend or participate in live music (concerts, recitals, music festivals). Teens Be part of their music. If they play, listen. Attend their band or orchestra concerts. Understand that the music they choose may not appeal to you.

Categories: Baby, Baby Health, New Parent