Does Music Make You Smarter?

June 19, 2006 at 11:43 PM · I could not find a link to this story so I have to post the whole thing. Sorry.

Anyway, what do you think of these conclusions, especially as pertains to Yo Yo Ma?

Notes on the brain: Does music make you smarter?


Knight Ridder Newspapers

Parents who play Mozart for a baby - or a pregnant belly - with the long-range hope of a letter of acceptance to Harvard should know their project is futile. On the other hand, exposing a child to great music - as a listener and as a player - will eventually pay off in increased smarts.

"Nothing activates as many areas of the brain as music," researcher Donald A. Hodges recently told an audience of University of Miami students and faculty.

On the screen above him, Hodges showed scans of the brain in the midst of musical activity. Both hemispheres were lit up, in Hodges' words, "like a pinball machine."

Hodges is Covington Distinguished Professor of Music Education and director of the Music Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was on campus as part of the Stamps Family Distinguished Visitors Series to share his findings on the relation of music to the brain.

And to answer a question that has been floating around both scholarly and popular culture for a while: Does music make you smarter?

"The answer is 'no' in a superficial sense," Hodges said. In 1993, experimenters claimed that listening to a Mozart sonata would make your IQ increase by eight points. Subsequent work, Hodges explained, proved that such listening would sharpen a subject's spatial-temporal relationships momentarily. After a short while, the subject would go back to being just smart as before. Or dumb.

But, he explained, a rich environment makes a difference: "The brain: Use it or lose it. The more education you have, the more the interconnections in the brain. Music changes the brain."

Admitting that this research moves at a slow pace - it is prohibitively expensive - Hodges outlined some major findings:

• Disproving earlier assumptions that musical activity takes place in the right hemisphere of the brain, the activity occurs with equal vigor in the left - or rational - hemisphere. Music is an emotional and intellectual activity that engages all the brain. Almost.

• During performance, there is almost no activity in the frontal lobe, where conscious thought takes place. When Yo-Yo Ma is playing his cello in concert he's not thinking, Hodges argued. All the thought took place earlier and if he were to think now it would impede his playing. He is simply performing, much like a highly trained athlete.

• "Music is always a physical activity," Hodges said. "Musicians are small-muscle athletes." And not just the performer. A listener sitting still in a classical concert hall is having the area of the brain that controls motion stimulated. Thus, that convention - not moving during classical performances - is unnatural.

Hodges learned how the brain reacts to music by making musicians perform in the most difficult conditions. Theresa Lesiuk, who teaches music therapy at University of Miami, was one of Hodges' subjects when they were both working in San Antonio. In her campus office, she recalls the experiments.

"I had to lie down in a gurney with an IV of radioactive material in me. They put a mask over my face and I was blindfolded. Then my head was placed in a tube."

And on a keyboard she had to play Bach. A PET scan picked up the radioactive material and showed which areas of the brain were activated. Images from those scans were what Hodges showed at his University of Miami lectures.

"We had to do this several times and the IV tube kept getting caught as I played. 'Ow!' "

"We have to know what the brain is doing," says Shannon de L'Etoile, who heads the music therapy program at the University of Miami. "Hodges' work is our bread and butter."

De L'Etoile explains that a person with brain damage from a stroke may not be able to speak, but can sing because the area that controls music is not damaged. A therapist will get the patient to sing a phrase, then change it to spoken language with an exaggerated rhythm, and finally to natural language. "We are rerouting through the healthy part of the brain," de L'Etoile explains.

"The spinal chord reacts immediately to rhythm," says de L'Etoile, who says that such therapy can be used with Parkinson's patients.

And, researchers have learned that autistic children are capable of reproducing patterns of music, which a therapist can translate to language and to unlock the social interactions autism prevents.

Lesiuk, whose work focuses more on psychotherapy, is researching the high burnout rate of computer system designers and how music can help. In therapeutic situations, music can help a patient reflect on the lyrics of a song or express their feelings. And not just happy feelings - music can help unblock anger.

At University of Miami, Hodges had said that "music makes you smarter because it helps you understand yourself as a human being and your relationship to the world." Echoing him, Lesiuk believes that "music can help us unblock the search for our inner self."

Except that Hodges goes beyond the individual search. Waiting at the University of Miami for a ride to the airport and his next lecture destination, the researcher explained how "like mathematics, music is a necessary way of understanding the universe."

Dismissing notions that music is just "ear candy," Hodges said that "the fetus has the ears working already and a newborn can pick out the mother's voice - for the baby, it is music."

Replies (32)

June 19, 2006 at 11:50 PM · Yes I read recentally that students that play a musical instrument score higher on the SAT's.

~*~Violins Make the World go Rouns~*~

June 20, 2006 at 12:47 AM · It's very good to see the Yo Yo Ma part borne out by electroencheph...encephli...umm a brain scan.

You think mainly in music performance when something is going wrong, I really believe. I noticed Ilya's statement of it here too once. It doesn't exactly mean the same thing as someone's so smart he doesn't have to think when he plays, though, if that's what you mean. Certainly doesn't mean you practice without thinking, either.

June 20, 2006 at 01:04 AM · Yo Yo Ma is not thinking when he's playing his cello? No wonder he's named Yo Yo.

Let's not run afoul of the nature of a correlation. A correlation simply shows that there is a statistical relationship (or parallel). It does NOT prove cause and effect.

- Just because there is a correlation between playing a musical instrument and higher SAT scores does NOT mean that playing a musical instrument CAUSES higher SAT scores.

- Just because parts of the brain of an fetus or an infant or a young kid (or you) is stimulated by music does NOT mean that it is making you smarter.

There are so many variables in these studies that could account for the results, that you simply cannot come to those one-to-one conclusions about the effects of learning a musical instrument on intelligence. It could just as easily be an artifact. Or it could be that intelligent people are more attracted to playing a musical instrument because it is (at least in part) an intellectual challenge.

But this raises an interesting question: How many IQ points are different composers worth? How much is your IQ raised by listening to:

Bach - add 72 IQ points

Mozart - add 68 IQ points

Beethoven - add 85 IQ points

Paganini - subtract 22 IQ points

And what happens to the great players' IQs when they play? In this case, we have an actual psychological study. Jascha Heifetz, for example, who probably had an IQ above 185, was tested with a full-scale IQ test while he was actually playing, and they found that his IQ dropped to 98. Afterwards, it went back up to 185. No wonder he always looked so unhappy onstage.

Maybe the "not thinking" theory of musical performance could explain the strange facial expressions and peculiar physical movements and gestures of so many soloists.

On the other hand, it could just as easily show intense concentration and superior thinking. Which is, of course, what I believe.


June 20, 2006 at 01:08 AM · Sandy, from your last sentence, how can you favor a theory that contradicts the result of an experiment? (One of the few genuine experiments in psychology I've ever heard of, by the way:)

June 20, 2006 at 01:07 AM · You're all stupid, IQ points count downwards, not upwards. (at least my IQ test came back negative)

> Maybe the "not thinking" theory of musical performance could explain the strange facial expressions

> and peculiar physical movements and gestures of so many soloists.

Hmm, why am i strangely and for no apparent reason, reminded of Scott Henderson =)

June 20, 2006 at 01:07 AM · Jim: What I question are the results and conclusions of all those experiments. You really have to know exactly, precisely, and in detail how all those experiments were done. And all those brief articles don't really give you all of those details.

Usually, when you know the actual details of these "experiments," you can find all kinds of what are usually referred to as "intervening variables" or other factors that could account for the results. All of those things typically leave these grandiose conclusions in doubt.

So, I think we're a long way from automatically believing all that stuff on the basis of those claims. Let's say you do 100 of the same experiment. By chance, 1 may come out in an unexpected direction for any variety of reasons. But it is usually that one deviant experiment that gets reported and publicized. Happens all the time.

Cordially, Sandy

June 20, 2006 at 01:29 AM · Sandy, we have to assume the experiment was done properly by real scientists, even though it's always possible it might not have been. I know psychologists have a reputation for being particularly bad though. Table top cold fusion on a daily basis.

Still, it's the best we've got, right?

Hopefully it makes more sense to assume it's good than it does to assume it's bad !

June 20, 2006 at 01:29 AM · Very interesting article, thanks for posting! I always suspected we musicians were a bit smarter than your average Joe Schmoe.... :)

June 20, 2006 at 01:30 AM · Although I still want to know what would be the effect of a baby's listening to nothing but Bartok...

June 20, 2006 at 01:24 AM · It's the best we've got - right. But the problem is that the more abstract and conceptual the conclusion, the more the subtle the variables that could affect the results, and the tougher it is to interpret the results.

In every good experiment, the experimenter also should look carefully at alternative explanations for the results and the weaknesses of the study (both conceptual and procedural). You never hear about all that in the way these kinds of things are reported to the public. Until you do, you (meaning any of us) need to keep an open mind.

I've been on enough dissertation committees to see that what looked like "airtight" studies get more holes punched in them than a pound of Swiss cheese.

That's what makes science so difficult. I was lucky to have had brilliant teachers and mentors. One thing I learned from them is that when you are presented with a study or an experiment or a scientific conclusion, always ask, "What's wrong with it? What else could explain these results? What's missing? What if there's something else going on here? Is there anything in the literature that contradicts this?" and so on.

If the experiment can survive all that, then you can consider accepting the results.

Bruch - add 2.5 IQ points

Cheers, Sandy

June 20, 2006 at 01:44 AM · Greetings,

I think w e have to divide `scientists` into those who listened to Mozart in the womb and those who didn`t.



June 20, 2006 at 01:44 AM · You're adding for Bruch?

June 20, 2006 at 01:57 AM · Dumber. Definitely. If Einstein hadn't wasted his time playing the fiddle, he just might have solved that confounded gravity problem once and for all.


















June 20, 2006 at 02:28 AM · Are you nuts? The only reason he was smart enough to come up with that whole "relativity" thing was BECAUSE he played the fiddle. ;)

June 20, 2006 at 01:38 PM · Hi,

I have difficulty with this... However, music can help develop qualities in a person that may lead to better learning - like discipline, routine and patience.

That Yo-Yo does not think while playing has nothign to do with smarts. He is simply playing, not doubting and not interfering while playing. That is a totally seperate thing. Most top players will tell you that self-talk is not something they engage in while playing and the greatest source of failure. That is a seperate issue from intelligence.

I find this stuff questionable... The connection is not that clearly defined.


June 20, 2006 at 04:20 AM · Musicians are just as stupid as everyone else.

"Yes I read recentally that students that play a musical instrument score higher on the SAT's."

That's also because most musicians are huge book nerds due to not being socially accepted at school.

Also about Heifetz's IQ, of course his allegedly incredible IQ (a number based on a culturally biased test) is going to dip to subsistance levels while he's playing. Why don't you try completing geometric sequences, venn diagrams, word play and math problems while playing the violin?

Also, having met quite a few great musicians from all disciplines, I can tell you that some of the very best can be total bimbos and about as interesting as an empty cookie jar.

June 20, 2006 at 07:27 AM · Sandy must be a very good scientist. I agree with him completely. One really has to take a hard look at the data and ask questions about how they were obtained and what they mean. Even professional scientists publish weak or shoddy data and draw unsubstantiated conclusions. BTW, I'm a recovering neuroscientist.

June 20, 2006 at 08:02 AM · You do have to start with the assumption your colleagues know what they're doing. Sure, there are followups to make, but you don't take it for granted they're doing shoddy work just because their results don't jive with what is nothing but your gut feeling!

Realistically though, it wouldn't surprise me if the experiment was really never even done and it's all crap journalism.

June 20, 2006 at 08:11 AM · For more research read the book by Thaut, Rhythm Music & the Brain about medical uses of music. This is a technical textbook aimed at music therapists. Loads of studies show music has medical benefits arising from the fact that it helps the brain work better, the best researched area shows music accelerates stroke victims re-learning to walk. As with exercising the body, often one kind of exercise can have effects on efficiency in other areas.

If you are a great musician & still stupid you should probably take up some new type of brain exercise which you find hard work, like learning Chinese. For must of us music is a very effective way of exercising the brain. Mental exercise (in which I include working on muscular control, as well as intellectual work) makes the brain work better & is proven to reduce risk and slow the progress of Alzheimers and dementia generally in old age.

June 20, 2006 at 12:08 PM · I think that most people assume (and observe) that music has beneficial and therapeutic effects, but proving exactly what those effects are is quite another matter.

(BTW, the Heifetz "experiment" was a joke).

OK, subtract 2.5 IQ points for Bruch.

And as to raising a baby who listens to nothing but Bartok, that was actually tried once. Elmo Grinkle of Highland Park, Illinois, was raised by his parents in a musical household. However, all they listened to and played recordings of was Bartok - EVERYTHING by Bartok, over and over and over again. Little Elmo grew up to be a genius, but he always sang the National Anthem in a pentatonic scale (and inverted).

Oh, and one more thing. If listening to Mozart when you're a baby will make you a genius like Mozart, then what did Mozart listen to as a baby? (I know, I know. He listened to Mozart.)

June 20, 2006 at 11:57 AM · I don't think music makes you smarter... I sure find it great to listen to, and enjoy performing for others.

June 20, 2006 at 12:49 PM · I hope those scientists are right. Listening to music sure beats eating fish! Although I'm sure people can add caviars to that.

June 21, 2006 at 03:17 AM · I have found that music makes me smarter. I am pretty close to the top of my class. Also I think best when I am playing.

June 21, 2006 at 08:53 AM · No one's yet mentioned it's scientifically proven that developing your hands is directly linked with developing your brain. It's important to learn coordination of both hands, because that coordinates your left and right brain. The more you improve your finger movement, the more your brain improves. Also, the smarter you are, the faster you can move your fingers. Piano is considered the best for such brain improving. Perhaps because you don't need a good ear for that... Anyways, I always feel a big intellectual difference between the musicians and ballet dancers of our school. We're like two totally different civilisations... With surprisingly rare exceptions. Those tend to change schools.

And I totally agree Einstein wouldn't be so smart without his violin's help. ^·^

June 21, 2006 at 03:58 PM · So you take up the challenge of learning the violin, which requires the following:

1. Give up your childhood. You will be practicing two to ten hours a day through your formative years (not to mention the rest of your life).

2. Learn an entirely unnatural way of holding this pecular instrumental set of a violin and a bow. Literally retrain your psycho-neurological equipment to respond to patterns that have absolutely no utility except in playing the violin.

3. Learn how to read and interpret an entirely different and a symbolic language - printed music.

4. Constantly be bombarded with different ideas of why the slightest of sounds has to be done in a different way from the way you learned it.

5. Spend your entire life constantly trying to stay in tune with a string instrument that has no frets, the strings themselves change with time and humidity and temperature, and one in which the physical intervals between notes get shorter and shorter as you go up the string, requiring your hand and fingers to remember almost impossible and endless variations in position and movement.

6. Be willing to be lambasted with criticism when you make even the slightest mistake, although the rest of your performance may be perfect.

7. Buy an instrument for which you have no idea whether you overpaid or underpaid, since it requires the wisdom of Solomon to evaluate its worth.

8. Constantly be at the mercy of professional music critics, other musicians, your own teachers, and everyone else who in every little thing you do compare you to examples of god-like perfection, like Jascha Heifetz.

Have I left anything out? Probably another 20 or 50 items. So this is what you have to deal with when you play the violin. My question is this - why does having to do all this make us smarter? Or, better yet, if we're so smart, why did we take up the violin in the first place?

June 21, 2006 at 04:42 PM · + if you're a guitarist, learn left-hand playing habits that got you many slappings on the wrist when you were a kid.

June 21, 2006 at 04:59 PM · Sander

I love your listing but with few changes it can as easily apply to being a singer or any other performing musician. I loved having a target printed on my chest every time I had the temerity to participate in an opera performance. In truth the act of being a musician requires an absolute belief in the rightness of what you're doing otherwise you will be eaten alive by people whose primary talent seems to be viciousness and sarcasm though occasionally there will be true insightfulness attached but not in proportion to the amount of crude and beligerent posturing.

June 21, 2006 at 08:52 PM · I’ve heard this argument before, as a reason to keep music in the school systems. I think it’s an absolute joke. Music should be kept in the school system for its own intrinsic merits, not linking it with something else. Would we say “learning math enhances your reading skills”? I think not. We would focus on the intrinsic benefits of math. While it is tempting to say that listening to Mozart as an infant makes them smarter, we must first look at the first original study produced on it. The original study was done on a group of college students. Around that age, the mind is finally starting to solidify into what it will remain like for a long time. The youngest group tested has been around 10 years old. There has been no test done on infants. In addition, the study is so inherently flawed, it is impossible to really say. There are so many factors that are involved (race, gender, exposure, location, etc.), that it is impossible to create a good control group. What limited research we have has shown that Mozart improves spatial reasoning for about 10 - 15 seconds. That’s about the amount of time it takes to pick up your pencil, write your name, and bubble 3 or 4 answers. On the SAT, 3 or 4 answers is a negligible amount.

The article itself is highly dubious, at best. Professor Hodges’ experiment only detailed the results of one participant, and even that detail was a bit skimpy. It was nice how he described his process, but what were his results? What did he conclude from his tests? In the beginning, he states that the entire brain was “lit up like a pinball machine”, yet later he says performing doesn’t stimulate the frontal lobe. He argues that Yo-Yo Ma isn’t thinking when he’s playing. That strikes me as fishy, as when I think of playing of without thinking, I think robotic - something he is most definitely not. In another one of his articles, he calls it “paralysis by analysis”. I think that this can definitely happen, but also have to wonder, if these great musicians are running on auto-pilot, shouldn’t all their performances sound the same? To become a great musician, you must be constantly reinventing your interpretations. A bit of further reading of some of his other publications reveals that he received a $250,000 grant from Texaco to study 8 pianists’ brains. How one can possibly make a study from 8 people, I have no clue. All the information that he would gather from that small a group would only pertain to those 8 pianists. It wouldn’t tell us about violinists, cellists, flutists, or anyone else. I think we can pretty much rule out his “scientific research” as an accurate study. It will be interesting, however, to see if someone does manage to conduct a reasonable study, on a much larger scale (maybe around 200 and of varying instruments as opposed to 8 pianists).

June 22, 2006 at 04:52 AM · If you'd think, you'd realize two people not thinking would not sound alike because of that:)

The easiest example I know of to visualize this is someone walking into a room where there's a piano, and sitting down and simply playing for himself. It takes no mental effort. The mental effort has preceded that. I was always busy thinking when playing violin, mainly listening for and fixing intonation, but on other instruments that I still play, ones I really learned to play to my satisfaction, no I rarely think about the music during a performance, especially when performing alone. Performing along with somebody else, I might think where's the beat or what's the next change, but like I said before, that's when something is going wrong in essence, even if nothing wrong makes it out.

Another example might be of someone who can't think, a nine-year-old for example. We live in a world where we're used to thinking we need to consciously guide and control to stay out of danger, and we apply it everywhere, but it isn't necessary in every situation.

You're no more likely to wreck your car because you aren't constantly thinking about driving while driving, assuming you aren't actually being distracted. When something is going wrong, you will think. There's the part that says this is intellectual music, how dare you not think while performing. But as much importance as you might want to give it, and as much as thinking of it as an intellectual activity might do that for you, it isn't actually an intellectual activity, it's music and performing. I dare anyone to think of everything that needs to be thought of during a performance! Same as I would dare them to think of every detail involved in driving and still keep the thing on the road.

I'm sure there are many ways of performing and equally sure it would be hard for anyone in the audience to tell them apart. I'll restate this too, think your damndest during practice.

June 22, 2006 at 05:04 AM · "shouldn’t all their performances sound the same?" I think the word "their" was misinterpreted by you. What I meant was to each artist. Like, "shouldn't all of Joshua Bell's concerts sound the same?" I apologize for that bit of confusion on my part.

But Jim, how does this allow for spontaneity in a performance? I think playing for fun and performing in public are quite different. I play a couple other instruments for fun (mandolin and ukulele), and I don't think about what I'm doing when I play them because I'm playing only for fun. But, in a performance with a pianist, I find myself always listening, which is a form of thinking. I've seen some performances which were comical because the violinist and the pianist both were on "auto-pilot", except were on different planes, to keep the analogy going. Thinking while performing doesn't necessarily mean you're gonna get utterly lost and confused.

To say 9-year olds can't think is a bit of a stretch. I see it as society is less willing to listen to what they have to say. It's something we need to fix, but that's a discussion for later.

You are right about music being music. But, at some point along the line, isn't it also an intelectual activity? How do great artists come up with their interpretations? I don't think it just "happens". I'm sure there is a lot of tweaking until they're satisfied. Every time they put a special emphasis on a note, how do they convey its specialness? They have to think about it, and think about its beauty and significance, and the effect on the audience is sublime.

But, what do I know. I'm just a college student :)

June 22, 2006 at 05:46 AM · George, I'm going to steal a couple lines from Jon, in another thread:

"When you speak to someone you think about what you want to express and you don't really think about the words, they just come out. "


With an articulate person, the intellectual portion - going to Harvard, or thinking through a topic, or whatever it was, has been done for the most part before the speaking started. You might think of the spontaneity as the words which came out, not planned in advance, or thought about much really. There are people who appear to hate spontaneity in music really. If you followed their logic to its perfect end, differences in performances would indicate some problem. Maybe even differences in two different performers. Obviously I don't agree.

Re: your last large paragraph, a lot of it is planned or stolen or whatever, and a lot is spontaneous. Magical things can happen spotaneously as well. Character development in a story for example is usually both a conscious and unconscious process. It's important to get the best teacher and environment you can. When you have the right preparation all kinds of things you might call sublime can happen.

June 22, 2006 at 02:45 PM · Jim, I think we have both deviated from the orginal topic - does music make you smarter? I see a correlation, but not a causation.

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