Music lessons ‘may not improve a child’s education’

Music lessons ‘may not improve a child’s education’


norman lebrecht

July 29, 2020

From this morning’s Daily Mail:

New research suggests that music lessons do not help children improve their other cognitive skills such as reading and maths.

A review of 54 scientific studies involving 7,000 children says learning an instrument provides no boost in other areas of study.

Dr Giovanni Sala, who led the research at Fujita Health University in Japan, said: ‘Our study shows that the common idea that “music makes children smarter” is incorrect.

Read on here.

UPDATE: Why teach music? Because it makes kids enjoy school


  • Jon Eiche says:

    I’ve always felt that we’re wrong in trying to “sell the sizzle instead of the steak.” We should advocate for music and the other arts because they deepen us as human beings.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    At first sight, bad science. Very contradictory statements:

    “New research suggests that music lessons do not help children improve their other cognitive skills such as reading and maths.”

    “But lessons can improve general intelligence, memory and sound perception.”

    “’Our study shows that the common idea that “music makes children smarter” is incorrect.’”

    Of course, musical instruction improves musical knowledge and performance. Improvement of “general intelligence” and of “memory” should apply to other fields than music.

    In a scientific investigation, you get answers to the questions you pose. If you do not pose a good question, you will get the answer to a bad question. The choice of the variables, their definition and range, can also have a decisive impact on the result.

    Apollo: ‘What do you wish, my son?”
    Billy: “Eternal life!”
    Apolo: “You’ve got it!”

    And Billy never died, but his body got older and older. Billy should have asked for eternal youth instead.

    • Mathias Broucek says:

      There was a great X-files episode about a woman who could grant three wishes and it generally played out with similar consequences due to a badly worded request….

  • Terence says:

    “The analysis looked at children with an average age of six who had completed an average of 53 music lessons. It compared them with others who had taken no music lessons, or had learned a skill such as dancing or sports.” [Quote from article]

    In other words they looked children who started on average at five and had lessons for around eighteen months.

    I don’t know that anyone has seriously suggested music lessons produce sudden gains. Most beginners drop out after a year or two and many don’t practice.

    This is basically useless pseudo research.

  • Chris Walsh says:

    A couple of things.

    This is not new research; it is a statistical review of existing studies.

    If music lessons aren’t making children smarter, are they making them dumber? I doubt it. Are music lessons making them more musical? I would think so.

    Expect this to be used as ammunition in the “we can’t afford to teach music, must prioritise STEM” wars.

  • Charles says:

    Anyone who remembers being forced to play instruments in grade school knows this much. I.e. sing cheezy songs, squeeky plastic recorders etc.

    There’s no need for a research study if people are honest with their experiences and I don;t believe that forcing kids to play music in school has any benefit… even in increasing interest in classical music.

    • Jack says:

      Forcing kids is another topic for another day.

      • Michael Turner (Conductor) says:

        Jack, you are right that this is another discussion to be had another day. However, the risk of removing the option for youngsters to study music is an outrage. I’m worried about what HM Govt. is going to do in the autumn.

  • I run a national foundation that provides music lessons to children.

    We teach one on one vocal music instruction, every week, during the school day.

    Our kids have seen their average GPS improve by 1.1 points over ONE year when in the program. All of our participants have graduated; many may not have.

    We execute a rigorous curriculum that we built based on problem solving and goal achievement. While this system is used for music learning, it bleeds into their other studies.

    When math and social studies teachers thank us for our goal tree or our lessons, one sees that rigorous curriculum tethered to mentoring through music changes lives.

    This “study” was designed by statistical analysts who balk at music because it doesn’t connect to their narrative.

    Music solves. We have causal proof.

    One on one, consistent mentoring through music with a curated curriculum moves kids over the red line and on their way to college or music careers.

    • Alvaro says:

      Maybe you meant to say “GPAs”.

      Now, what were those arguments about music helping spelling, math, etc? I forget

  • Allen says:

    “Studies” are like buses, there’ll be another along in a minute.

    I don’t claim to know either way, but I don’t see why it should be any less beneficial than, say, learning a foreign language which, in a sense, it is.

    Then there are other less tangible benefits – concentration, self discipline, dexterity, team work etc.

    For me, a lot of time at school was wasted on things that conferred little benefit and, at worst, was just crowd control. I am still waiting for my understanding of the Hoare–Laval Pact to come in useful. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

    A little more attention to music would have been an improvement, with or without higher grades in Maths. But let’s not forget that the acoustic properties of instruments and the realtionship between notes are governed by the laws of Physics.

  • Patrick says:

    So, what? I don’t need improved math, reading or science skills to tell me music is valuable. Studying music makes one a better musician. That is reason enough. Let’s spend more effort showing why music-making has innate value.

  • Novagerio says:

    So both Plato and Aristotle were wrong…

  • V. Lind says:

    So we have a contrarian study. Typical of the DM to jump on it.


    In which we discover the problems with the popular press reporting on science.

    Next to last paragraph “However, the authors of the analysis note that too few studies have been done to reach a definitive conclusion, and more research is needed.”

  • John Borstlap says:

    Interesting…… but the article does not specify the TYPE of music which is taught to the children concerned.

    Music related to other mind skills like maths, orientation, sense of structure and the like, may indeed have a generalized effect (I am certain it has). But simple guitar music (picture) which consists of chords mainly in a row under a simple tune, or pop music, or other simple one-dimensional musics, won’t add much to the effectiveness of the brain, let alone the mind.

    Classical music however, which is in most cases multi-dimensional (fore- and background) and has an organised narrative structure from beginning to end, requires a much more generalized consciousness and/or feeling than – say – heavy metal or Madonna.

    If the research project has been carried-out by people without understanding of the nature of classical music and its differences with other types of music, no doubt the outcomes will reflect their own limitations.

    • Jack says:

      With study subjects who are six years old, I don’t think ‘type of music’ matters much. If the children are being taught an instrument, playing a short simple tune is probably the goal of many exercises designed to teach certain skills involved in playing that instrument.

      I taught children this age and was pretty good at it. Getting kids to read and understand a new language (musical notation), form their lips, hands, arms, etc.) in such a way to produce the right sound, understand meter and rhythm and being able to play music to a simple beat, and to do all this SIMULTANEOUSLY is a feat in itself.

      At this level, Madonna, Beethoven or Borstlap don’t mean too much. Just being able to have your fingers on the right keys or strings in the right place is a major goal and the hoped-for accomplishment. Whether or not it helps them understand quadratic equations later on, I’m actually doubtful. I just think that as one of the performing arts, music can be a great introduction to a lifelong interest in something wonderful. Sports might be something you can do into your forties but music is something you can do much longer. My flute playing Dad died the morning after his last rehearsal. Music meant everything to him right up until the end.

      • John Borstlap says:

        As soon as children of around 6 get in touch with classical music, not only playing simple things but also listening, it surely has an influence on the mind. And this does not diminish the effectiveness of the simple exercises the child has to carry-out itself. It is a continuum, not an either-or.

  • Clefwalker says:

    It’s not about increasing “smartness,” but about helping kids to learn about process and how to take charge of it through their practice and development; and the myriad ways that learning about and playing great music stimulates those centers (not just in the brain) that appreciate beauty and hard work. Of course, doesn’t work on everyone, but the joy of playing in an orchestra or singing in a chorus, for instance, gives children something that they really can’t get elsewhere. It is true, however, that those who start earlier do often see a difference in brain skills (speaking from experience). The study is way too general, I’d suppose.

  • Anonymous says:

    Of course it doesn’t make anyone smarter.

    It just gives you a different perspective of life, helps you connect with your senses, improves your emotional intelligence, perception, awareness, makes children feel part of something bigger where they can collaborate with other kids, learn about themselves etc.

    But who cares about that

  • NY teacher says:

    Nonsense. Those in the trenches see music changing how kids use their brains, and the great results it produces.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Music even changes the brains of adults. Since I’m listening to Boulez, it takes much longer to get through my daily work load, I get more comments and rebukes, my digesting system gets irritated and I get worrying dreams at night but I feel so much better all in all!

      The other day I listened to a beautiful new piece by some modern punk gal and got so excited I took the wrong bus to work & landed in a forest in the rain, beautiful experience!


  • Elvira says:

    The capacity to concentrate ,the drive to improve, the pride after a well deserved effort and so many many more aspects of mastering music .
    Statistics….who are those people?

  • Mathias Broucek says:

    New research suggests that reading the Daily Mail does not help adults improve their other cognitive skills such as reading and maths.

  • debuschubertussy says:

    What’s wrong with music being beneficial on its own terms? Can’t music be inherently “good” for students?

  • Michael says:

    And math lessons doesn’t improve students’ music skills either…By expecting music to be good at building non-musical skills we cheapen its value. Teaching math or reading will ALWAYS be better at improving math and reading. But music is valueable in and of itself. Many people benefit more in their lives from being able to carry a tune, clap in time, or appreciate their favorite music than being able to use calculus. Unfortunately, many music students are taught in an unmusical way that produces button-pushing, mechanical musicians that are only good at making the concert band put on concerts. If we focus on teaching kids creative music skills, ear training, improvisation, and composition, we’d have better a educated musical public. Then we wouldn’t need to rely on music’s side effects to justify its existence.

  • I suppose next we’ll get a study that tells us music lessons don’t make children more musical.