Music lessons and intelligence: A relation mediated by executive functions

Degé, F., Kubicek, C., & Schwarzer, G. (2011). Music lessons and intelligence: A relation mediated by executive functions. Music Perception, 29(2), 195-201.


Noting several studies that have previously identified a positive association between musical instruction and intelligence, researchers in this study examine whether the relationship between musical study and intelligence may be mediated or influenced by a third variable, executive function—including abilities such as planning, focus, memory, task switching, and problem solving that control cognitive processes. To investigate whether executive functioning skills were positively related to intelligence and prolonged musical study, the researchers assessed both IQ and executive functioning in nine to twelve year-old children with varying amounts of musical instruction. The researchers found positive associations between length of musical study, scores on executive functioning tasks, and performance on intelligence tests. These findings suggest that the noted relationship between musical study and intelligence may be partially explained by increased executive functioning.

Key Findings:

In addition to validating previous studies finding a positive association between musical instruction and IQ, the researchers also found musical study to be positively related to measures of executive functioning, even when accounting for important family background characteristics such as parental education and income level. In particular, the researchers identify two aspects of executive functioning, attention and inhibition, as the most influential aspects mediating IQ.

Significance of the Findings:

Although several previous studies have reported the existence of a positive relationship between IQ and musical study, little was known about the underlying nature of this relationship and there has been considerable debate as to whether musical study directly influences IQ or whether this relationship is influenced by a third relationship. As implied by the findings in the current study, there is now evidence to suggest that increased executive functioning skills are related both to prolonged musical instruction and higher IQ.


The data in this study come from 90 nine to twelve year-old children. Parents filled out surveys indicating that some of the children in the sample received no prior music lessons (33%); about 50% of the children had between one and four years of musical instruction; and some of the students in the sample had more than four years of musical instruction (17%). The researchers also collected data for each child on levels of parental education, family income, and IQ, used as a proxy for each child’s intelligence. They did not report whether they gathered data on student racial and ethnic background. The researchers found that on average students’ length of prior musical study was not correlated with levels of parental education, and found no correlation between gender and IQ in the sample. The researchers assessed executive functioning abilities through use of various graded tasks, each designed to highlight a particular executive functioning skill (i.e. planning, attention, etc.). From the collected data, the researchers then calculated overall scores on the executive functioning tasks, and compared these scores to child IQ and level of music instruction to determine whether or not these variables were correlated.

Limitations of the Research:

Although this study establishes a relationship between musical study, executive functioning skills, and IQ, the nature and direction of this relationship is still unclear. For instance, it is possible that children with higher levels of executive functioning and IQ may be inherently well suited to the study of music, or that children with higher IQs might also have increased executive functioning skills that enable them to persist in their musical studies. As such, the present study does not prove that improved IQ or executive functions are caused by the study of music. Furthermore, the authors of this study do not disclose the type of musical training (i.e. piano, string instruction, etc.) the students in the study received in their lessons, nor any contextual details about where the lessons took place, who provided the instruction, or its quality.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Would a similar relationship be detected in children engaged in other forms of musical instruction (e.g., ensemble-based)?

Would future studies examining other forms of arts instruction yield comparable results?

Is there a causal relationship between music study and the development of executive function?