Glenn Schellenberg, Ph.D
Glenn Schellenberg, Ph.D
Professor of Developmental/Cognitive Psychology
University of Toronto, Mississauga
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Music Lessons’ Real Impact: The Research

By Christopher Skokna, Contributing Writer

Much research shows that what students learn in music classes, including listening and teamwork skills, is transferable to other realms, especially elsewhere in school. Some of the strongest research in music education comes from Glenn Schellenberg, a professor in both the department of psychology and the faculty of music at the University of Toronto. Professor Schellenberg, however, doesn’t think music and the arts should be taught because of transfer. LearnNow spoke recently with him to find out why. For more on music and the transfer of learning, read this interview with conductor-educators Adrian Anantawan and Kathleen Jara.

Q: Should all children study the arts and music as part of a basic education? If so, why?

A: Yes! It’s reasonable to teach kids the only thing that makes people dance, dream, and connect with one another. Music is directly related to our own well-being and our connectedness. What else do we spend so much time thinking about, talking about, dreaming about? Of course, we should teach music in school.

We have a strong belief that a liberal arts education makes you well rounded, and music and the arts are a big part of that. They don’t balance the checkbook, but they improve the quality of your life. Isn’t that enough?

That said, there is evidence that music education transfers to other areas of life. Anecdotally, learning to play and read music in a group setting—in an orchestra, a band—may improve working in groups elsewhere. According to research, learning to play an instrument helps improve your IQ slightly, and lots of studies show that certain listening programs and training make you a better listener, and that helps improve speech and language abilities.

Like I said, however, tying music education to cognition or transfer elsewhere is misguided. We don’t justify math because it makes you have a better vocabulary. And we should teach music for its inherent qualities and necessity.

Q: What are some good examples of transfer of learning from music, and how can we explain this transfer? That is, what mechanisms would such transfer be based on?

A: First, I’m skeptical. While studies, including some of my own, show that music makes you “smarter,” the hard, empirical evidence is slim. In my first research, we wondered whether the “Mozart effect”—that listening to classical music improves performance—was real. And we were able to replicate it, to a certain extent, and then deconstruct it. That’s Nantais and Schellenberg, 1999, and Thompson, Schellenberg, and Husain, 2001. We showed that the effect had nothing to do with Mozart. Listening to any kind of music can improve how you feel, and how you feel can influence performance on a wide variety of tests.

Then, I got a large grant to study music lessons and cognition. That’s a more serious and more important question than examining the effects of brief music listening. The grant allowed me to do a large randomized experiment to see if a year of weekly keyboard, vocal, or drama lessons (or no lessons) improved cognition in first-graders. Each child took a complete IQ test in September when the lessons began. They took the same test again in June after the lessons ended. Increases in IQ from the first to the second test were larger for the children who took music lessons than for the other children (by about 3 points).

Two more studies to look at. One was with Dr. Sylvain Moreno. We showed that of two computerized training programs for preschoolers—one for music and one for art—only the music group showed enhanced performance on a test of vocabulary after four weeks of training. The other, Degé and Schwarzer in Frontiers, checked out the effect of music education on phonological awareness in preschoolers. Phonological awareness is the ability to actually understand the sounds that make up spoken words—to understand that the word “bear” without the first sound gives the word “air.” The effects were positive.

Why does this happen? It’s clear that there’s some connection between learning the sounds of music and learning the sounds of language—a shared mechanism that’s best described as “listening ability.” And when you learn music, that connection may help to improve language abilities to a measureable degree.

Q: You say you are “skeptical” about music making you smarter. Why?

A: First, true experiments are difficult in this field. It’s hard to replicate the real world. Lab experiments are limited. And getting kids to take actual music lessons is very, very expensive. We can’t ask parents to pay for kids’ lessons for experimental purposes. And when we pay for them ourselves, it’s not real-world music lessons, as the parents are not nagging their children to practice because they’re not paying for it.

Next, in the real world, certain kinds of kids—ones who, perhaps, are smarter and more conscientious—are more likely to stay with music lessons over the long haul. So, are music lessons exaggerating differences that are already there?

Q: How did you become involved in the study of music education?

A: I took piano lessons and got pretty far. I had a modicum of talent. I started out at the University of Toronto as an undergraduate in the Faculty of Music, but got sidetracked. I played in pop bands through my 20s, but I never became a pop star.

I went back to university and discovered I loved psychology. Then, I discovered the psychology of music—perfect. Eventually, I ended up studying the Mozart effect. And then I became fascinated with the question: Does music training change people in some way that’s systematic across individuals? I’m still interested in this question but view it now as an interaction between nature and nurture. Kids who take music lessons come from well-to-do families with well-educated parents, and they are smart, conscientious, interested in the arts, and open to new ideas. In other words, they gravitate toward environments—music lessons in this case—that match their genetic make-up. Exposure to music lessons then exaggerates the personality and cognitive differences that were there in the first place.

Learn More

K.M. Nantais and E.G. Schellenberg, “The Mozart Effect: An Artifact of Preference,” Psychological Science (click here for PDF)

S. Moreno, E. Bialystok, et al., “Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function,” Psychological Science (click here for PDF)

F. Degé and G. Schwarzer, “The Effect of a Music Program on Phonological Awareness in Preschoolers,” Frontiers (click here for the article)

Ingrid Wickelgren, “Do Music Lessons Make You Smarter?,” Scientific American (click here for the article)

Perri Klass, “Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits,” The New York Times – Well