Music lessons enhance IQ

Schellenberg, E.G. (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15, 511-514.


This study is the first to directly test the hypothesis that music training transfers to cognitive intelligence. The researcher used an experimental design with random assignment of a sample of six-year-old children to experimental and control groups. The children were assigned to one of four groups: two experimental groups received either keyboard or voice lessons and two control groups received either drama lessons or no lessons. The researcher measured students IQ at baseline prior to lessons and after lessons were completed. Results indicated that children in the music groups demonstrated greater increases in full-scale IQ compared to control groups. The researcher reports the effect was small; however, it generalized across IQ subtests, index scores, and a standardized academic achievement measure. In addition, the drama group exhibited extensive, unexpected improvements in adaptive social behavior that were not found in either music group.

Key Findings:

  • The researcher found that all four groups (keyboard, voice, drama, no lessons) had significant increases in IQ; however, the music groups had significantly larger increases in full-scale IQ compared to control groups.
  • The music groups also had similarly larger increases on four index scores of the IQ test (Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Organization, Freedom from Distractibility, and Processing Speed) compared to the control groups. In fact, on all but two of the twelve subtests (Arithmetic and Information), the music groups had significantly larger increases than the control groups.
  • There were no significant differences between the music and control groups on the subtests assessing academic achievement; however, the researcher noted that a similar pattern of increased pre- to post-test scores favored the music groups.
  • Significant improvements in pre- to post-test adaptive social behavior were found for the drama group, but not for the two music groups or no lessons control group. No significant pre- to post-test differences or differences among groups were found in measures of maladaptive behavior.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings indicate that music lessons can lead to small increases in IQ, but comparable non-musical extracurricular activities such as drama do not have similar effects. The researcher demonstrated a relatively rare finding in the extant literature: experimental evidence that far transfer – music lessons to IQ – does occur for children. This study has implications for students, parents, and schools in that providing children with opportunities for consistent, weekly music instruction may result in general improvement in a wide range of cognitive abilities, not just those closely related to music.


Participants were recruited from the community via newspaper advertisements offering free weekly arts lessons for six-year-olds. The researcher selected six-year-olds because children this age are thought to be sufficiently mature for formal lessons and because plasticity declines in older children. Two groups received music lessons in either keyboard or voice instruction. Two control groups received either drama lessons or no lessons. Lessons (keyboard, voice, drama) were taught weekly for 36 weeks at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Instructors were trained, female professionals who were associates of the conservatory, having completed the highest certification in music or drama.

Trained research assistants, blind to the conditions the children were assigned, assessed participants using the WISC-III, the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (K-TEA), and the Behavioral Assessment System for Children (BASC) – Parent Rating Scale during the summer prior to the onset of lessons and before the children entered school. Exceptions were 23 students who turned age six in September or October – they were tested soon after their birthdays and distributed evenly throughout the four groups. Participants were reassessed the following summer.

Measures from the WISC-III used in the study included full-scale IQ, four index scores (Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Organization, Freedom from Distractibility, and Processing Speed), and the twelve subtests (Picture Completion, Information, Coding, Similarities, Picture Arrangement, Arithmetic, Block Design, Vocabulary, Object Assembly, Comprehension, Symbol Search, and Digit Span). The K-TEA has five subtests that were examined separately: Mathematical Applications, Reading Decoding, Spelling, Reading Comprehension, and Mathematical Computation. The BASC provides separate composite measures of adaptive social functioning (Adaptibility, Social Skills, Leadership) and maladaptive social functioning (Hyperactivity, Aggression, Anxiety, Depression, Atypicality, and Attention Problems).

Limitations of the Research:

One limitation is the generalizabilitiy of results to children who do not have access to premier music instruction. The researcher notes that the music (and drama) instruction was provided by instructors at “the most prestigious music conservatory” in Canada. This may not accurately reflect the kinds of music instruction available in various communities; therefore cognitive effects may not be replicable for most children.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Would children receiving less-premier music instruction (i.e., typical music instruction by members of the community versus conservatory instructors) receive the same increased benefits to IQ? Also, how long would the cognitive benefits hold for the children in the music groups? Do these effects carry into later childhood, or into adolescence?