Music training boosts IQ

There are more and more brain training companies popping up which promise the same deal: improved intelligence. While there are doubts about their results, another sort of brain training has existed since the beginning of humanity: music. The evidence for its effectiveness is surprisingly strong.


Music Lesson, 1936

Brain training in the 1930’s.

Over the years, researchers have noticed that people who have taken music lessons are better on a wide range of seemingly unconnected tasks. Just look at this impressive list:


Mathematics (across many different tasks; Vaughn, 2000)
Reading (understanding a written text; Corrigall & Trainor, 2011)
Simon task (quickly overcoming an easy, intuitive response in order to do a task right; Bialystok & DePape, 2009)
Digit Span (repeating a long list of random digits; Schellenberg, 2011)
Simple Reaction Time (pressing a button as soon as possible; Hughes & Franz, 2007)


None of these tasks has anything to do with music classes. What is it that makes music lessons correlate with them? It could just be the socio-economic background: the more well-off or well-educated the parents the better the education of their children, including their music education (e.g., Corrigall et al., 2013). However, one can adjust for these differences with statistical tricks and the general picture is that the family background cannot fully explain the advantage musically trained children have on all sorts of tasks (e.g., Corrigall & Trainor, 2011; Schellenberg, 2011). If not family background, then what is underlying the music children advantage?


Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin

Brain training in the 18th century. I am referring to the left lady.

Another contender is a common factor making some people good on all sorts of seemingly unrelated tasks and other people bad on nearly any task. This factor is called ‘g’ or general intelligence. An indeed, people who have enjoyed a musical education score higher on intelligence tests than people who did not. This has been shown across the globe: North America (Schellenberg, 2011), Europe (Roden et al., 2013), Asia (Ho et al., 2003†). The consistency across age groups is also impressive: 6-11 year olds (Schellenberg, 2006), 9-12 year olds (Schellenberg, 2011), 16-25 year-olds (Schellenberg, 2006). So, what holds these tasks and music education together is general intelligence. But that just opens up the next question: what causes this association between general intelligence and music lessons?
Music lessons cause higher intelligence
The most exciting possibility would be if music lessons actually caused higher intelligence. In order to make such a claim one needs to take a bunch of people and randomly assign them to either music lessons or some comparable activity. This random assignment ensures that any previous differences between music and non-music children will be equally distributed across groups. Random chance assignment at the beginning of the experiment ensures that any group differences at the end must be due to the whether children took music lessons during the experiment or not. Glenn Schellenberg did exactly this experiment with over 100 six-year-olds in Toronto (2004). Over a period of one year the children who learned to play the keyboard or to sing increased their IQ by 7 points. Children who were given drama lessons instead or simply no extra-curricular activity only increased by 4 points (likely because they started school in that year). A similar study which recently came out of Iran by Kaviani and colleagues (2013) replicates this finding. After only three months of group music lessons, the six-year-old music children increased their IQ by five points while children who were not assigned to music lessons only improved by one point. Across studies music lessons boost IQ.
It is worth reiterating how impressive this effect is. It has been found across three different music teaching approaches (standard keyboard lessons, Kodály voice lessons, Orff method). It has been replicated with two different sorts of intelligence tests (Wechsler and Stanford-Binet) as well as most of their subscales. It even came up despite the cultural differences between testing countries (Canada, Iran).
The take-home message couldn’t be any clearer. Music lessons are associated with intelligence not just because clever or well-off people take music lessons. A musical education itself makes you better across many tasks generally and on IQ tests specifically. No other ‘brain training’ has such a strong evidence base. Music is the best brain training we have.


Eros and a youth

Ancient Greek brain training. I am referring to the gentleman on the right.


Bialystok E, & Depape AM (2009). Musical expertise, bilingualism, and executive functioning. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 35 (2), 565-74 PMID: 19331508

Corrigall KA, Schellenberg EG, & Misura NM (2013). Music training, cognition, and personality. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23641225

Corrigall, KA, & Trainor, LJ (2011). Associations Between Length of Music Training and Reading Skills in Children Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal,, 29 (2), 147-155 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2011.29.2.147

Ho YC, Cheung MC, & Chan AS (2003). Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: cross-sectional and longitudinal explorations in children. Neuropsychology, 17 (3), 439-50 PMID: 12959510

Hughes CM, & Franz EA (2007). Experience-dependent effects in unimanual and bimanual reaction time tasks in musicians. Journal of motor behavior, 39 (1), 3-8 PMID: 17251166

Kaviani H, Mirbaha H, Pournaseh M, & Sagan O (2013). Can music lessons increase the performance of preschool children in IQ tests? Cognitive processing PMID: 23793255

Roden, I, Grube, D, Bongard, S, & Kreutz, G (2013). Does music training enhance working memory performance? Findings from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735612471239

Schellenberg EG (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological science, 15 (8), 511-4 PMID: 15270994

Schellenberg, EG (2006). Long-Term Positive Associations Between Music Lessons and IQ Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (2), 457-468 DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.98.2.457

Schellenberg EG (2011). Examining the association between music lessons and intelligence. British journal of psychology, 102 (3), 283-302 PMID: 21751987

Vaughn, K (2000). Music and Mathematics: Modest Support for the Oft-Claimed Relationship Journal of Aesthetic Education,, 34 (3/4), 149-166 DOI: 10.2307/3333641



† Effect only marginally significant (0.05<p<0.1)



1) By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Johann Heinrich Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin, via Wikimedia Commons

3) attributed to the Penthesilea Painter, between circa 460 and circa 450 BC, via Wikimedia Commons


  1. For younger children, talking with them as much as possible is also a very good brain training. As far as I can remember, this can account for up to 40 IQ points difference.

      1. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley looked at this approach in detail. The book is called ‘Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children’ (1995), there should also be a paper available somewhere.

  2. Thanks for this summary.
    While I agree this is potentially exciting and important, I am more cautious than you in my reaction to the latest study by Kaviani. As far as I can see, the children were not randomly assigned to treatments and the control group received no alternative intervention.
    The study is rather unclearly reported. They state that “the present study attempted to control for potential confounding variables such as gender, maternal educational level, previous music training, being familiar with the place of the music lessons, teacher and time of day of the lessons (morning and afternoon).” Although they talk of random selection, they then state “Participants were matched for age, gender and mother’s educational level”, which, while a reasonable thing to do, is not a random method and is not generally recommended in the literature on trials methodology, because of the possibility of biased allocation to groups.
    Most puzzling is the fact that the authors also state that children were recruited from public kindergartens and community music schools, but then they say “None of the children in either group had any previous music education, either formally (courses) or informally (by family members, friends, etc.), as self-reported. In addition, no children in either the experimental or control group were involved in any other music education during the course.” This is a bit odd, as you’d imagine that children recruited from a community music school would have had some music experience.
    The lessons were taught for 13 weeks at a local community music school. No children were recruited from this school, which is good, but we aren’t told whether the two groups were comparable in terms of the schools they came from.
    Finally, the sample had mean IQs well above average (mean 120 or more), which places them in the top 10% of the population); this isn’t necessarily problematic but it limits generalisation from the study.
    Overall, I agree it would be great if music education had these beneficial effects, but we need more high-quality randomised controlled trials before we can be sure it does. See also:

    1. Hi deevybee.

      Thanks a lot for your comment. Reading your blog repeatedly makes me especially happy to see that you do the same with my blog.

      I agree with you concerning your reservations about the Kaviani et al. study. Note that I explicitly mention that the control group received no intervention (however, in the Schellenberg study there was a drama class control). Concerning random assignment, it might well be random but the authors checked for biases after group assignment. This might be what is meant by ‘random selection’ and ‘matching’. Concerning recruitment from music education, my reading was that they used a waiting list and picked people at random from the waiting list. I agree with you though that multiple readings of the methodology are possible.

      I also agree with you that we need more high-quality randomised controlled trials (how could I not?) but I would say that the Schellenberg (2004) study does come very close to this standard and that the evidence from the Kaviani study nicely agrees in its general conclusions despite some methodological question marks. My take on this issue is that the evidence convincingly shows that music lessons do improve IQ scores.

      Moreover, of the 5 ways in which psychological test scores might improve despite no effective intervention, none can explain the music-IQ findings:

      a) spontaneous improvement
      –> Does not explain why one group improves more than the other (Schellenberg, 2004)

      b) placebo effect
      –> Does not explain why drama class group does not improve while music class groups do (Schellenberg, 2004)

      c) developmental change
      –> see a)

      d) practice
      –> see a)

      e) regression to the mean
      –> see a) and also unlikely given the above average IQ scores of children before intervention (Kaviani et al., 2013)

  3. I like your blog a lot. You have done a great job with your research and analysis, though, ironically the best analysis was buried in the comment section. Just curious, where do you find your research?

    1. Glad you like it. I think what you call ‘the best analysis’ other people would call ‘details’. I wanted the main message to come through very clearly without being lost in unnecessary methodological detail. I hope my readers can trust me that I cover that part as well without necessarily mentioning it. If they don’t, they can feel free to ask me in the comments.

      Now, how do I find interesting papers?
      1) I use Digg to follow a number of journals, mostly the top psychology journals and some cognitive neuroscience ones.
      2) I use a google scholar alert to make me aware of new stuff
      3) I follow a number of people on twitter
      4) I actually read the Introduction and the Discussion parts of papers.

      How do you do it?

      1. I mostly rely on twitter, TedTalks, and WordPress. Thank you for the tips–I was wanting to expand my access to interesting studies. This helped a lot.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s