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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Has studying an instrument made you more intelligent?

February 23, 2013 at 8:45 PM

As 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.

From Tommy Atkinson
Posted on February 23, 2013 at 8:55 PM
I think the main thing I've gained from studying music is that, well, I know a lot about music.

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.

From Millie Bartlett
Posted on February 23, 2013 at 9:10 PM
Even on a basic level, if you are learning to read and play music, you are learning another skill. Reading music in itself is a little like learning another language. It's a form of code or language that most musicians learn to understand. The more musical instruments you learn, the more you add to and refine this skill. And you don't just learn to play music. Patience, concentration, memory, co-operation, co-ordination, expression, reasoning, attitude and yes, even a little maths, are some of the other skills that are honed in the process. Surely learning and refining new skills add to your intelligence levels somehow?

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?

From David Rowland
Posted on February 23, 2013 at 11:00 PM
I can not say whether or not learning music has affected my intelligence. What I can say is that is has enriched my life. Going back to the violin as an adult has had a positive affect on my state of mind and my emotions. It has provided not only a creative outlet but an emotional outlet and helps to relieve stress. I find that participating in an orchestra is intellectually stimulating. It is quite challenging for me to play, sight read, watch the conductor, and pay attention to what is happening around me.

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.

From Lawrence Price
Posted on February 23, 2013 at 11:31 PM
I have played the violin so long that I have no frame of reference for before I played. So I cannot say if I would have been less intelligent. I suspect that continuing to play keeps my mind more alert and curious.
From Emma Otto
Posted on February 23, 2013 at 11:52 PM
I can't remember much of before I began the violin either, but I know that when I skip a day of practice I feel a little bit "out there". Strange...

From Mendy Smith
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 12:11 AM
Though I deal with complex numbers every day, when it comes to music I often struggle to count to four consistently. :)

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.

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 12:43 AM
I think a distinction needs to be made between "more intelligent" and "smarter." The latter likely yes, the former likely no.

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.

From Rocky Milankov
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 2:04 AM
Although some authors differ in opinion what intelligence is, there is a scientific consensus about this topic.
Your question (pool) for as a call for self-observation (introspection) about one's IQ does not make any sense. One can not have an objective information on one's IQ based on anything else than measurable numbers. IQ is measurable by psychological tests.
Even if there is a significant difference in means in IQ between people who learn music and those who do not, there is a number of other significant variables that affect IQ and can not be easily be under control. In other words, it is extremely difficult to prove that learning music has a causal effect on intelligence.

From Steve Reizes
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 5:35 AM
I was smart already, and can't correlate that to my study of violin. It has taught (is teaching?) me to think in more than one line at a time and to listen and observe underlying structure. But those are specific skills as opposed to innate intelligence which I see as the capacity to learn.

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.

From Popi stavrinidou
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 10:44 AM
This is a relativ question;You must like first of all the music and having musical gift..If parents are..forcing their children to learn violin, will not develope their confidence!
As regarding me I believe the music,not only the violin has developped my personnality,broadened my interests in literature ect.and as I have had 1st...teacher who was claiming that I was not gifted,yes after learning playing violin by a real teacher this has given me confidence!
From Annette Brower
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 12:26 PM
What is the definition of intelligence? A highter IQ? Scoring well on a standardized test? I don't know if it increased my intelligence but it taught me:

work ethic
passion for beauty
respect for others and myself
ability to praise and receive praise
ability to give and receive constructive criticism
attention to detail
emotional maturity
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
memory skills

That doesn't include any technical violin skills...intonation, tone, vibrato, shifting, phrasing, orchestral skills....

Shall I go on?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 12:52 PM
Like many articles written for the lay public that report on neuroscience, this one is sensationalized and oversimplified, but I think it's basically correct and doesn't warrant an overly defensive response. There are no claims being made that studying an instrument has no value. In fact the quote at the end from Daniel Levitin says exactly the opposite.

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.

From marjory lange
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 1:28 PM
I agree with Karen on this one. Studying music has probably given me useful access to more of my brain's innate "intelligence" but it hasn't increased the initial amount. I think the phraseology of the article is misleading, and the underlying definition of 'intelligence' not very well-supported by neuro-science (or psychology).
From Terry Hsu
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 3:54 PM
I was opposed to the tagline that went with the article, ("Pushy parents....etc etc
") not so much with the research itself, which was only summarized. As Karen stated, the researcher did mention the value of music in and of itself, which was a fair statement.

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.

From David Beck
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 5:13 PM
Doubts have been raised over the years as to the validity of regarding IQ as a fixed aptitude; the tests are culture dependant. The measured IQ of a child I know went up after remedial reading-tuition. So perhaps learning an instrument might sharpen a person up generally.
Introspectively, I doubt whether learning "music" upped my IQ - indeed the more I learned the more ignorant I seemed to feel !
Like an army squaddie, an orchestral fiddler such as I was isn't paid to think. I felt pretty dumb a lot of the time, perplexed by the often irrational internal goings-on in a large band.
They do say, however, that folk who continue in retirement to engage in tasks such as solving crosswords stave off the advent of senile dementia. I DO feel that my daily bouts of fiddling, learning the oboe and continuing to compose will do that for me. But has my IQ been maintained, or gone up ? Only an outsider could judge.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 5:19 PM
Terry, I basically agree with you, the tagline is kind of foolish, especially if directed at musicians. But if the audience is "pushy parents" who in fact do use IQ and standardized testing as measures of intelligence and think that's what counts, then I don't think the tagline is so bad. And yes, such parents do exist (I'm thinking of parents such as described in _Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother_).

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.

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 25, 2013 at 3:39 AM
I agree entirely with the Telegraph article.

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.

From elise stanley
Posted on February 25, 2013 at 6:32 AM
I answered yes - even though I too agree that the 'correct' study has not been done and even if it was it would be subject to valid critique.

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.

From Timothy Lessler
Posted on February 25, 2013 at 7:42 AM
After I began (for the second time) playing violin seriously, my law school grades went up, even though I had less time on hand to study since 12-15 hours a week (which was formerly used for studying) was now devoted to our wonderful instrument. I also "felt" smarter, if that makes any sense. So, there is my very unscientific story of how re-picking up the violin either caused me to be a better law student, or at least was a cool coincidence... :)
From Chino Soberano
Posted on February 25, 2013 at 2:55 PM
It certainly made me more intelligent/disciplined. I started taking up the violin in 2nd grade. Before that, I was kind of a "problematic" child back then: I had difficulties learning simple lessons, I disliked doing homework, and I was hard-headed, to the point where our school principal had to talk to my mom personally a few times.

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!

From Mark Roberts
Posted on February 25, 2013 at 3:20 PM
no, because of the things that I would have been doing instead of playing, like scientific research.
From Alison S
Posted on February 26, 2013 at 2:29 PM
I voted no, because I don't believe that music has made me smarter. All those hours I spent working through the ABRSM and Guildhall grade system as an adult learner could perhaps have been spent learning foreign languages or philosophy or studying for a doctorate.

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.

From Nicky Paxton
Posted on March 1, 2013 at 10:25 PM
I agree with Alison. Since I started playing again about three years ago, I have found the violin a very good aid to all-round personal development, particularly since it calls for a worthwhile effort. I agree that such effort keeps the brain working. The same goes for serious concert-going in terms of paying the closest possible attention both to the music itself and to the quality of the performance. In that connection: when attending a concert, I like to have a seat overlooking the platform and facing across the orchestra from behind the violin sections (or the 1st violins depending on how the orchestra is seated). This allows me usefully to observe the technique of at least some of the violinists.

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