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Intelligence in Musical Minds

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 31 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Intelligence Music Mozart Effect

Playing an instrument can bring both children and adults great joy. It's a way to learn a new skill, create pleasing sounds and perhaps challenge oneself to compose or master the skills needed for musical success. Does music makes us more intelligent though?

While previous studies have looked at how we react simply to hearing music, new research suggests that learning an instrument could help our intelligence. Just how does this work?

Understanding the Mozart Effect

Previous studies had looked at what happens when someone listens to Mozart's music. Some research suggested that a person could have enhanced visual-spatial skills right after they listened to a Mozart sonata. Other researchers criticised these studies, citing that the pure enjoyment of hearing music was enough to improve a person's mood and boost their alertness. Still other researchers tried to replicate the original experiments but were unable to do so.

Even if the Mozart Effect did ultimately prove true, this benefit seems to be a short-lived one that lasts for a mere ten to fifteen minutes. For most people, playing Mozart music to their children or listening to it themselves isn't going to help their intelligence. But what about learning an instrument – could this help intelligence?

A Better Brain

Researchers have looked at how the brains of musicians differ from those who don't play an instrument. Using brain scans, they found that depending on the type of music, certain parts of the brain showed greater activity. Research into both adults and children have shown that these benefits can begin early on and be evident when we are older.

In one study, it was found that children who played an instrument had more grey matter in the sensorimotor cortex and occipital lobes.

Yet another study looked at the differences within groups of musicians. They wanted to see how the brains compared from amateur musicians to professional ones. Even though both groups knew how to play the instruments, the professionals had much more practice. This translated to significantly more grey matter, which means that the more you play, the more potential you have to improve your intelligence.

Changing Brains

Some critics of this kind of research might suggest that all it means is that people who have more grey matter are more likely to become musicians. This is not the case, however, because researchers have looked at the transition as well. They recruited people who were not musicians and then had these people learn a simple song on the piano. After just under a week of two hours of practice each day, researchers could see that their brains were enhanced in the areas that influence finger movements.

Other studies have looked at cognitive and vocabulary abilities. Results suggest that even though the tests themselves are not specifically related to music, the benefits from music can extend to many other areas of intelligence. Even maths abilities were slightly improved in those who played an instrument versus those who did not.

Start Learning an Instrument Today

There are so many benefits from learning to play an instrument that even if there wasn't evidence that intelligence was improved, they would be worth learning. The fact that we know there are benefits to the brain means that it's all the more reason to enrol your children in music lessons. There are enough different kinds of instruments that you are sure to find one that your child is happy to learn. He or she can reap the pleasure that comes with mastering an instrument while also enhancing intelligence along the way.

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