Cynicism does not necessarily equate to a good scientific and well-reasoned argument.

Posted on: 13 Jan 2017
Posted by: Amy Fancourt

Dr Amy Fancourt, Head of Psychology at Queen Anne’s School in Caversham, discusses the school's research with Goldsmith University which has been undertaken specifically to understand how musical participation relates to intelligence.

Recent research, reviewed in Richard Vaughan’s article that learning an instrument 'does not make kids smarter', demonstrates a correlation between musical ability and cognitive ability. The authors are correct that correlation does not indicate causation. It is inaccurate to draw the conclusion that learning to play a musical instrument causes an increase in cognitive and/or academic ability. However, a crucial point may be missed, which is that it is equally inaccurate to draw the opposing conclusion that learning to play a musical instrument does not result in increases in such abilities. There is a danger in drawing steep conclusions and making inflammatory claims from the available data.

The existing body of research tells us that there is a relationship between musical and cognitive ability; the exact nature of this relationship is yet to be seen. Recent research published in the journal ‘Frontiers’ reports that the relationship between musical ability and intelligence (as measured using the MyIQ test modelled on the Raven's Progressive Matrices) may be influenced by other factors. For example, the mindset of the learner, and the approach taken when faced with new and challenging tasks, may mediate the apparent relationship between musical ability and academic achievement. It is clear from the literature that the complex nature of the relationship between musical and other abilities is far from understood. Until this question is addressed from a longitudinal perspective, we cannot claim that musical practice does or does not lead to increases in intelligence.

This is why, as a part of the BrainCanDo educational neuroscience project at Queen Anne’s School, we are working with researchers at Goldsmiths University to understand further how musical participation relates to intelligence, and to specific gains in academic achievement in our pupils over a five-year period. The findings from the first stage of the research last year - which tested 313 of our students between the ages of 11 and 16 – showed that intelligence is related to certain musical listening skills, and that there is a strong connection between musical ability and intelligence. We also found a link between attitudes towards musical ability and intelligence, academic effort and achievement. Students who believed that musical ability was not fixed, but developed through hard work and effort, were more likely to adopt the same view of intelligence more generally and to show the highest levels of effort towards their academic work.

Music is a good model for the plasticity of the teenage brain. Learning to play a musical instrument, or to sing in a choir, places very specific and unique demands on the human nervous system and through neuroimaging we can demonstrate the structural and functional changes that take place in the brain as a result of this kind of skill practice. If young people can understand the dynamic nature of their developing brains, we can foster a positive approach to learning a musical instrument and also help them to recognise that musicians are not born brilliant but achieve brilliance through effort, hard work, and practice. Poor performance is not failure; it is an opportunity to improve. We know that music is motivational; our research (we will have the findings from the second stage in June) already shows that it can genuinely help teenagers change their attitudes towards learning.

About Amy Fancourt

Dr Amy Fancourt is the Head of Psychology at Queen Anne’s School in Caversham, a boarding and day school for girls.