attentional blink

Why does music training increase intelligence?

We know that music training causes intelligence to increase, but why? In this post I 1) propose a new theory, and 2) falsify it immediately. Given that this particular combination of activities is unpublishable in any academic journal, I invite you to read the whole story here (in under 500 words).

1) Proposing the ISAML

Incredible but true, music lessons improve the one thing that determines why people who are good on one task tend to be better on another task as well: IQ (Schellenberg, 2004; Kaviani et al., 2013; see coverage in previous blog post). Curiously, I have never seen an explanation for why music training would benefit intelligence.

I propose the Improved Sustained Attention through Music Lessons hypothesis (ISAML). The ISAML hypothesis claims that all tasks related to intelligence are dependent to some degree on people attending to them continuously. This ability is called sustained attention. A lapse of attention, caused by insufficient sustained attention, leads to suboptimal answers on IQ tests. Given that music is related to the structuring of attention (Boltz & Jones, 1989) and removes attentional ‘gaps’ (Olivers & Nieuwenhuis, 2005; see coverage in previous blog post), music training might help in attentional control and, thus, in increasing sustained attention. This in turn might have a positive impact on intelligence, see boxes and arrows in Figure 1.


Figure 1. The Improved Sustained Attention through Music Lessons hypothesis (ISAML) in a nutshell. Arrows represent positive associations.

The ISAML does not predict that intelligence is the same as sustained attention. Instead, it predicts that:

a) music training increases sustained attention

b) sustained attention is associated with intelligence

c) music training increases intelligence

2) Evaluating the ISAML

Prediction c is already supported, see above. Does anyone know something about prediction b? Here, I shall evaluate prediction a: does music training increase sustained attention? So far, the evidence looks inconclusive (Carey et al., 2015). Therefore, I will turn to a data set of my own which I gathered in a project together with Suzanne R. Jongman (Kunert & Jongman, in press).

We used a standard test of sustained attention: the digit discrimination test (Jongman et al., 2015). Participants had the mind-boggingly boring task of clicking a button every time they saw a zero while watching one single digit after another on the screen for ten minutes. A low sustained attention ability is thought to be reflected by worse performance (higher reaction time to the digit zero) at the end of the testing session compared to the beginning, or by overall high reaction times.

Unfortunately for the ISAML, it turns out that there is absolutely no relation between musical training and sustained attention. As you can see in Figure 2A, the reaction time (logged) decrement between the first and last half of reactions to zeroes is not related to musical training years [Pearson r = .03, N = 362, p = .61, 95% CI = [-.076; .129], JZS BF01 with default prior = 7.59; Spearman rho = .05]. Same for mean reaction time (logged), see Figure 2B [Pearson r = .02, N = 362, p = .74, 95% CI = [-0.861; 0.120], JZS BF01 = 8.181; Spearman rho = 0.03].


Figure 2. The correlation between two different measures of sustained attention (vertical axes) and musical training (horizontal axes) in a sample of 362 participants. High values on vertical axes represent low sustained attention, i.e. the ISAML predicts a negative correlation coefficient. Neither correlation is statistically significant. Light grey robust regression lines show an iterated least squares regression which reduces the influence of unusual data points.

3) Conclusion

Why on earth is musical training related to IQ increases? I have no idea. The ISAML is not a good account for the intelligence boost provided by music lessons.

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Carey, D., Rosen, S., Krishnan, S., Pearce, M., Shepherd, A., Aydelott, J., & Dick, F. (2015). Generality and specificity in the effects of musical expertise on perception and cognition Cognition, 137, 81-105 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.12.005

Jongman, S., Meyer, A., & Roelofs, A. (2015). The Role of Sustained Attention in the Production of Conjoined Noun Phrases: An Individual Differences Study PLOS ONE, 10 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0137557

Jones, M., & Boltz, M. (1989). Dynamic attending and responses to time. Psychological Review, 96 (3), 459-491 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.3.459

Kaviani, H., Mirbaha, H., Pournaseh, M., & Sagan, O. (2013). Can music lessons increase the performance of preschool children in IQ tests? Cognitive Processing, 15 (1), 77-84 DOI: 10.1007/s10339-013-0574-0

Kunert R, & Jongman SR (2017). Entrainment to an auditory signal: Is attention involved? Journal of experimental psychology. General, 146 (1), 77-88 PMID: 28054814

Olivers, C., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2005). The Beneficial Effect of Concurrent Task-Irrelevant Mental Activity on Temporal Attention Psychological Science, 16 (4), 265-269 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01526.x

Glenn Schellenberg, E. (2004). Music Lessons Enhance IQ Psychological Science, 15 (8), 511-514 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00711.x

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Play music and you’ll see more


Check out the video. It is a short demonstration of the so-called attentional blink. Whenever you try to spot the two letters in the rapid sequence you’ll miss the second one. This effect is so robust that generations of Psychology undergraduates learned about it. And then came music and changed everything.

Test your own attentional blink

Did you see the R in the video? Probably you did, but did you see the C? The full sequence starts at 0:48, the R occurs at 0:50 and the sequence ends at 0:53. As far as I can see each letter is presented for about 130 milliseconds (a typical rate for this sort of experiment).


Judging by the youtube comments, of those who did the task properly (14 comments when I checked), only 65% saw the C. This is remarkably close to the average performance during an attentional blink (around 60% or so).

Where does the attentional blink come from?

The idea is that when the C is presented it cannot enter attention because attention is busy with the R. Another theory states that you immediately forget that you’ve seen the C. The R is less vulnerable to rapid forgetting.

What does music do with our attention?

In 2005 Christian Olivers and Sander Nieuwenhuis reported that they could simply abolish this widely known effect by playing a rhythmic tune in the background (unfortunately no more details are given). Try it out yourself. Switch on the radio and play a song with a strong beat. Now try the video again. Can you see both the R and the C? The 16 people in the music condition of Olivers and Nieuwenhuis could. Music actually let them see things which without music were invisible.

It is a bit mysterious why music would have such an effect. The article only speculates that it has something to do with music inducing a more ‘diffuse’ state of mind, greater arousal, or positive mood. I think the answer lies somewhere else. Music, especially songs with a strong beat, change how we perceive the world. On the beat (i.e. when most people would clap to the beat) one pays more attention than off the beat. What music might have done to participants is to restructure attention. Once the R occurs, it is no longer able to dominate attention because people are following the rhythmic attentional structure.

Behind my explanation is the so-called dynamic attending theory. Unfortunately, Olivers and Nieuwenhuis appear not to be familiar with it. Perhaps it is time to include some music cognition lessons in psychology undergraduate classes. After all, a bit of music let’s you see things which otherwise remain hidden to you.


Jones, M., & Boltz, M. (1989). Dynamic attending and responses to time. Psychological Review, 96 (3), 459-491 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.3.459

Large, E., & Jones, M. (1999). The dynamics of attending: How people track time-varying events. Psychological Review, 106 (1), 119-159 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.106.1.119

Olivers, C., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2005). The Beneficial Effect of Concurrent Task-Irrelevant Mental Activity on Temporal Attention Psychological Science, 16 (4), 265-269 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01526.x