February 23, 2013 at 8:45 PMAs musicians and music lovers, many of us probably take for granted the notion that music increases our intelligence.
So imagine my surprise, reading this article in the Telegraph, which says, "Pushy parents who give their children piano lessons because they believe it will make them more intelligent are wasting their money, experts claim." Basically the article claims that it's all a spurious correlation: smart, rich kids study music, so we think that music makes them smart. I was quite relieved that the British violinist Tasmin Little (who by the way, is currently in the U.S. to play the Elgar Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony next weekend) wrote a very nice response.
I thought I'd poll a bunch of people who have made music a serious pursuit: all of you! Granted this is self-selected and unscientific, but I do think that people who have studied music have some perspective on this topic.
Do you feel that learning an instrument has enhanced your intelligence in any way? And in what way? Do you feel that your intelligence would have grown in the same way without the study of music, or do you think the study of music (and learning an instrument) had some specific effects on you? What were those effects? Please answer the poll question, then share your ideas about this below.
While it feels good to say, "Studying music makes you better at math/reading/communicating/etc," I think that intelligence/knowledge can come studying anything seriously, whether it's literature, math, art, acting, science, etc. Honestly, studying science intensively will make you way better at math than playing music will.
I think the problem is that even we musicians feel like music is important to study because it helps you in some other way. You doesn't study science because it makes you better at math. You study science because it's a legitimate concentration. We need to take that attitude and run with it in music education. I don't play and teach music for a living because it makes me and my students better at "real" skills, I teach and play because it's just as important as any other subject. People need to know about Bach, Beethoven, etc. People need to know how music is constructed and what to listen for in great performances. Every single person I know loves music and is affected by it in some way.
Once the arts community stops trying to justify arts education with benefits in other subjects, I think we then have a case for STEAM education instead of focusing so much on STEM.
Even with reference to a simple IQ test, everyone needs to have learned at least some skills, like reading, writing, mathematics, reasoning and concentration in order to basically complete the test. Years and levels of experience also play a part in improving one's intelligence, I'm sure. How many times have we sat in awe of a parent or older friend who can effortlessly answer all those sensible and silly quiz questions on the telly? Sometimes those questions even involve music. :)
What annoyed me about this study is that it somehow infers that learning a musical instrument or even music in itself, is somehow not recognised in the 'necessary skill set' required for all round intelligence. If so, why not? Who gets to decide where the boundaries of intelligence begin and end and what it should encompass? Is this something that needs to be changed? There are so many other learnings that could be considered, but for today the question is about music.
So to release a 'study' showing that a child forced to learn an instrument does not gain anything intellectually has to be complete rubbish. Sure, those that learn willingly would gain even more, but there has to be some recognition of a few of the basic skills that would be imparted along the way. Do we musicians go into learning the craft to make ourselves more intelligent? Largely not, I suppose, but nevertheless we are exposed to a very large group of skills that need to be acquired somehow, in order to learn music.
As for how music has affected me and my life? I was never a rich smart kid, but I couldn't begin to describe how much it has elevated my perceptions, attitude and strength of mind. Over the years it has challenged and moulded a very large part of my being, as well as giving me pleasure and friends to enjoy it with. I am now forever grateful that I can be fully aware of what I would have missed had I never shown an interest in an instrument during high school.
Can I place a bet that those conducting THAT study have never REALLY studied music?
Tommy mentions the emphasis on STEM that is currently in fashion. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math may all be important in our present and future society. However, I would hate to live in a world with no room for the arts. Such a world would be culturally dead. As human beings, we are social animals. The arts, and music in particular, enhance our social skills.
I can't say if music has increased my intelligence or not, but I can say that it has taught me teamwork, critical thinking, time management and discipline. David hit the nail on the head though. The most important thing playing an instrument has brought me is the stress relief and a creative & emotional outlet. We often underestimate how important this is for a well balanced life.
And regarding the emphasis on STEM, I just came from a kids' "mixed recital" and there are always plenty of my STEM colleagues in the audience -- the parents of the performers, and many of them play instruments too. Tomorrow when I go to hear a string quartet recital I will see lots of STEM-ers there too. STEM and the arts do not work against one another.
Having read other's comments after I wrote mine, I feel a need to first say "I'm with you Mendy", counting and playing at the same time is often very challenging. Secondly, I guess I should go back and amend "start" to "intelligent", there truly is a distinction, sometimes subtle between the two.
passion for beauty
respect for others and myself
ability to praise and receive praise
ability to give and receive constructive criticism
attention to detail
the value of repetition
appreciation of the arts and an awareness of the value of the arts in society
understanding delayed gratification
ability to multi-task
That doesn't include any technical violin skills...intonation, tone, vibrato, shifting, phrasing, orchestral skills....
Shall I go on?
I think this article is trying to inject a note of needed sanity into the parenting debate by pointing out that not everything can or should be done with the aim of increasing children's IQ, creating baby Einsteins, getting them into Ivy League colleges, and so on. And I don't think music lessons are for everyone. They should be *available* to everyone regardless of income or socioeconomic or ethnic background, but not pushed on the unwilling because some adult thinks it will get little Muffy into Princeton. That's what I think the tagline was (clumsily) trying to get at.
Since the question was about personal experience, I will say that I'm in the minority who voted no. Learning the violin did not increase my intelligence. I was a good student across the board, and I got a lot out of all of my subjects. There were times when I was conscientious about practicing, plowing through Wohlfahrt the way I would learn vocabulary words or physics formulas. Music came less easily to me than some other things did, though, and if anything, it interfered with my quest to achieve academically, because of the time required for practice, which took away from time I needed to study. I quit playing the violin entirely when studying for my PhD.
When I came back to it, music taught me other things. It helped me with discipline and focus. It gave me a creative and social outlet. It taught me about humility. All things which I submit are just as, if not more, important than intelligence.
So what does one define as intelligence? The tagline appears to define it as IQ. The researcher? I'm not sure but he appears to be using IQ for basis of comparison.
I'm generally inclined to go along with the theory of multiple intelligences, by Howard Gardner of Harvard. According to Gardner, musical aptitude is an "intelligence."
If your brain is a muscle, and exercising it makes it stronger, one could argue that music makes you smarter.
And I'm speaking as a parent who signed her kids up for music lessons and doesn't think they are a waste of money. I agree with what Tommy Atkinson wrote, above. All I'm saying is that you sign them up for music lessons because music lessons are a good thing in and of themselves for many reasons that are as good as or better than an increase in intelligence.
Rocky is right. None of these self-investigative claims are subject to proper control. The problem with drawing conclusions from such badly-designed studies is that the results can actually be damaging because they promote stereotypes.
Even Tasmin Little's claim that "At the very least, music education does no harm," is open to debate.
The reason for my yes was that I took the question in its broadest context - that is improved my brain power - with respect to hand dexterity. I know its not intelligence per se but (if I recall correctly) there was a study some time back that showed that students who studied an instrument (I think it was a violin) gained larger brain cortex dedicated to each finger and that that persisted.
Here it is:
Science. 1995 Oct 13;270(5234):305-7.
Increased cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand in string players.
Elbert T, Pantev C, Wienbruch C, Rockstroh B, Taub E.
If that is true then I'm surely an example of it - for me the tangible outcome was ability at dissection and experimental manipulation which were the cornerstone of my work.
Also, if this is true - that one can detect a change in the brain resulting from a learned behaviour then it becomes far easier to consider more subtle effects in broader areas. No doubt the same is true for other learned behaviours but playing an instrument involves a lot of mental processes and may have more beneficial outcomes than, say, playing a field game.
It was a drastic change after I started with my violin lessons. My grades and classroom conduct improved. I also made a lot of friends! I became a consistent honor student until I finished high school. I'm in my 4th year now in my undergrad degree in violin performance.
Thank you, Music!
However I still believe that music is an important life skill that will hopefully stand us in good stead. My own observation is that those elderly musicians who form the bulk of my local amateur orchestra benefit from a social and intellectual stimulation that goes deeper than listening to the radion or watching TV. And surely that has preserved their intelligence.
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