According to this article, researchers have found children who spent three years or more learning a musical instrument (in this case, either the piano or a stringed instrument) will show higher levels of intelligence when measured at a later age. The researchers determined the increase was not restricted simply to areas of cognitive functioning directly associated with music, such as auditory discrimination and finger dexterity; they also found significant differences in verbal intelligence and visual pattern recognition (which is associated with nonverbal, visual-spatial intelligence). From the article:
A total of 41 eight- to eleven-year-olds who had studied either piano or a string instrument for a minimum of three years were compared to 18 children who had no instrumental training. Children in both groups spent 30-40 minutes per week in general music classes at school, but those in the instrumental group also received private lessons learning an instrument (averaging 45 minutes per week) and spent additional time practicing at home.
While it is no surprise that the young musicians scored significantly higher than those in the control group on two skills closely related to their music training (auditory discrimination and finger dexterity), the more surprising result was that they also scored higher in two skills that appear unrelated to music—verbal ability (as measured by a vocabulary IQ test) and visual pattern completion (as measured by the Raven's Progressive Matrices). And furthermore, the longer and more intensely the child had studied his or her instrument, the better he or she scored on these tests.
A couple of observations. First, the study intuitively makes sense to me, though I would have preferred if their sample sizes were larger. What is nice about their finding is that the level of effort required to find a significant impact is well within the reach of most children. They are not examining prodigies who spent hours and hours honing their craft; 45 minutes of formal instruction, followed by some amount of individual practice is reasonable. An interesting question, though: What if certain unaccounted-for factors (confounds), such as attention, are impacting these results? For example, could children with attentional problems be less likely to persevere through three years of formal music instruction, and if so, how might this also impact later intellectual development, independent of this specific music factor? Others might be intrinsic music ability, a random difference in IQ independent of prior music experience, even SES (music lessons ain't cheap). Just a thought, and one that would require a more thorough examination of the study, particularly the methodology.
Another aspect of this study, which I noted above, is that the results don’t surprise me on an intuitive level. In particular, I think that the idea of verbal IQ being outside the domain of musical development is off base, at least partially. For people who do not have significant training in music, tasks involving music will be much more right-brained, nonverbal, and novel. In basic terms, the right side of the brain is responsible for processing novel information, and for non-musically trained people, this is the part of the brain that will process any type of new music instruction (for example, a 30-year old who takes music lessons for the first time). However, as an individual begins to truly grasp the intricacies of music, it does in fact become a “verbal” skill, in that we process music as a language. It becomes a learned, ingrained form of knowledge that is now processed on the left side of the brain, which is responsible for “crystallized intelligence.” Therefore, it doesn’t seem to be any stretch to expect that as an individual (particularly a child, whose brain is more flexible and adaptive anyway) develops skill as a musician, they begin to improve their verbal intelligence.
The most important aspect of this article for me is that it provides yet another reason to kick myself in the #@$!. Afforded the opportunity to take guitar lessons as an adolescent, I instead succumbed to my attentional deficits, and quit after only a couple of months. I’ve taken lessons off and on as an adult, but it is infinitely harder at this point. This will, of course, not be an option for my children (yep, tyranny shall reign in my household!). Actually, I shall put into practice a concept often referred to a “The Illusion of Choice,” whereby my kids will be allowed to choose which instrument they would like to learn; however, whether or not they learn an instrument will be a choice conveniently taken off the table (unless, of course, they demonstrate acuity in some other activities, which is fine - they simply won’t have the option of vegetating, like I did!).