Einstein was smart, but Could He Play the Violin?

I already wrote one entry for PLoS ONE’s second birthday, but I’m feeling sparky today, and I think I like this paper better.
I don’t know about you guys, but when I was a sprog, my parents dragged me to music lessons. LOTS of music lessons. As of right now, I have been producing music of some type for the past 21 years straight. And I LOVE it.
Of course, I didn’t always love it. I remember my mother dragging me and my brother to lessons, making us sit down every day and practice (I was, and still am, no good with the practicing), and the fear and shakiness of recitals (heck, I still get that, and it’s been 21 years). In her time, Sci has actually “mastered” (it’s a debatable point), three different instruments (‘instruments’ is a loose term), and still uses one of them professionally on occasion. And if you can guess what they are, Sci will…do something cool. Like send you one of her favorite books. Or perhaps a tshirt with a molecule on it. Or perhaps some of her delicious cookies. Obviously, you can only guess if you don’t KNOW already (that means you, Dad). So there you go, contest open.
Anyway, years and years of music lessons. But the question is: did they do me any good? Does playing ‘Baby Mozart’ really do anything, and is anything achieved by starting your child on Suzuki when they are 2, other than the pain and misery of your child, and possibly an eventual love of music? Can it, perhaps, make me SMARTER?
ResearchBlogging.org Forgeard et al. “Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning” PLoS ONE, 2008.
And for the record, Einstein did play the violin. Apparently he was quite good.


There actually are several studies out there that show that techniques that you learn can “transfer” to other techniques, giving you a bit of an edge. This works best when you’re performing skills that are very similar to each other (like learning how to estimate the area of a square, and then learning how to estimate the area of a triangle). We know this happens for musicians in the development of fine motor skills. Once you’ve been playing the violin for a while, other things that require fine motor skills will come to you a bit easier (perhaps we should train all would-be surgeons on musical instruments, if you can master playing Rachmaninoff, brain surgery should be a piece of cake).
Of course, most of the studies that have been done are correlational in nature. Kids who play musical instruments have better motor skills. This could be due to the music, or the kids could play music because they have good motor skills. Good motor skills could be a development of things like the higher socio-economic class that often goes along with being taught music as a child, and thus parents are maybe able to put more effort to their development. The possibilities go on. Correlation is NOT causation.
The same thing goes for the correlation between musical learning and IQ. There was a modest correlation, but it could be just the effect of the extra lessons the kids were receiving, resulting in more time spent on focused attention and mastering a skill. Significant correlations have also been shown for music and verbal and language skills. Music lessons have been found to be correlated with increases in reading ability and phonetic comprehension. This actually leads me to a question: if language, reading, and phonetic comprehension are related to the pitch and tone of words, do children who are tone deaf have a harder time mastering reading and verbal skills? I think this might warrant a future PubMed search.
Unfortunately, all the previous tests tended to focus on the “transfer” of skills to not very related fields, like IQ. So in this study, the authors wanted to look at the effects of music learning on “near” transfers, skill closely related to music training: spatial reasoning, verbal abilities, nonverbal, and mathematical. They also looked for VERY closely related skills: fine motor control and auditory skill.
They grabbed a whole bunch of kids around 8-11 years old. Some played musical instruments, some didn’t (one of the problems with this study to me is that the control group is a good bit small than the instrumental group, 41 musicians vs 18 non). Kids were controlled for the socio-economic class of the parents. Average length of music training was close to five years. They also divided the kids up by whether or not they got Suzuki training, but ended up grouping them together, as Suzuki effects were no different from other instrumentalists.
Dang, they didn’t graph their data. Well, I shall fix. Because I can. People should be so grateful I do all their graphing…
graph1.png
There you go. So, as you can see from the graph (the pretty, pretty graph), musical kids scored a lot better on fine motor skills for left and right hand (the first two sets of bars). This is pretty expected, if you’re using fine motor skills a lot, presumably you’ll get better at them. The musical kids also did better when distinguishing tones and following melody lines, though interestingly, they didn’t show any improvements in rhythm. I won’t if this has anything to do with the kids of music the kids were studying. There wasn’t a single drummer in the bunch, it was all either piano or stringed instruments.
And finally, the kids with musical training scored a lot better (I know it doesn’t look like it, but the MANCOVA analysis uncovered a difference) on vocabulary testing. They outperformed their non-musical counterparts in both verbal ability (vocabulary) and non-verbal reasoning skills. They didn’t find any differences in math or spatial reasoning.
The authors hypothesize that music training may transfer skills to some other related domains. The other hypothesis is that music training doesn’t enhance a specific skill set, but rather your general intellectual ability. This would mean they would score higher on every test given. In fact, they DID score higher, but most of the time the scores didn’t reach significance.
Still, remember this is correlation, not causation. Families were of similar socio-ecoomic class and education, but that doesn’t mean they are all similar parents. Kids who take music lessons may have parents that are more involved in their intellectual development. Kids that persist in taking music lessons for a good chunk of time may have superior motivation. Correlation =/= causation.
But it’s still a cool paper, and no matte what, it’s quite clear that music lessons didn’t HURT. Time to tape your poor child to the piano bench!
Marie Forgeard, Ellen Winner, Andrea Norton, Gottfried Schlaug (2008). Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning PLoS ONE, 3 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003566

16 Responses

  1. Very interesting article. I’ve often ‘heard’ mumblings about learning an insturment helpful to math and analytic skills, but with no data to back it up. I’ll guess you learn the piano, flute and clarinet?

  2. My guess is that spending substantial time and effort practicing *any* difficult task will enhance a variety of cognitive capacities. I also suspect that the children who manage to put in substantial time and effort practicing a musical instrument do so because they are generally motivated and disciplined, and that motivation and discipline carries over to all sorts of other activities.

  3. I’m going to be a rebel and guess that one of them is the Theremin — I’m almost certain to be totally wrong, but the cool-geeky factor if you did would be through the roof.

  4. Ah, the lovely Theremin. No. 🙂 pumpkinesque actually has TWO out of three right. Which two?

  5. Off topic but…. I knew a man (a Princeton Chem Prof who did part of his PhD with Arrhenius believe it or not) who used to have a few guys around for a beer and a chat on Tuesday evenings. One of them was Einstein, and sometimes he entertained the group with a tune or two.

  6. I am terribly grateful that you do the graphing. I’ve been known to do my own, just for fun.
    I’m going to guess that you started with the flute, switched to the clarinet when you discovered it made you less lightheaded, and now play a really mean saxophone. The last part is mostly because I enjoy imagining that you get called out of the lab occasionally to head down to the jazz club when someone’s regular sax player is sick. 🙂

  7. Stephanie, you flatter me, but I’m afraid that I have NO soul. There is not a bit of jazz in this geek, though she tried for years. So right now you only have one out of three.
    Technically, I guess you could say four, since I’m just now mastering the zills. They are, however, entirely unrelated to the first three.

  8. You play the cello. Can I have your book? I like reading science books.

  9. Piano, clarinet and….kazoo?

  10. I never got anywhere with the zills, although I’ve probably had the most practice with them. My left hand simply doesn’t keep very precise time. It’s a pity so many dance classes are gung ho on them. Everything else coordinates just fine, thank you.

  11. Oh, Stephanie, I know how you feel. It took me forever. Luckily, we have a lot of variety in our classes.
    cicely: 2/3. I DO play a mean kazoo, but that’s not what I’m referring to.

  12. Well, a lot of processes share circuits, so that’s plausible. I would guess more likely that it’s an executive control issue (i.e. the focused sitting is doing more than the music learning).
    Clarinet, piano, and vocals.
    C’mon, you know you sing in the car.

  13. James Dean FTW!!!! I’ll have you know that Sci does a good bit better than singing in the car. Though she can really bust it out when she has to. So molecules, book or cookies?

  14. Dammit! Way too slow on my blog reading today, I coulda won!
    Oh well.
    In any event, here’s some food for thought. What if (as logically suggested) the actual playing of an instrument improves fine motor skills, but something else is responsible for the reading/vocabulary?
    What if it’s learning to read music that makes the difference? I’d be willing to bet that if they took a bunch of kids who play music for the hell of it (without actually reading music) and a bunch of kids who took formal lessons where they were taught to read music, you’d get a significant difference in reading skills for the two groups.
    I’d be absolutely shocked if there was really any difference in comprehending and using speech, though. It’s been shown consistently in the literature that speech comprehension is special – it has nothing at all to do with the acoustic signal coming into your ears. For that one, I’d bet if the difference exists it has to do with parents who are more involved in addition to the fact that formal music training puts you in contact with many more adults than the average kid. The more you speak and are spoken to, the better your speaking and listening skills.
    Either way, very interesting blog. But as an aside – dammit, Sci, what’s with the splitting posts?

  15. Do you know who conducted this study?

  16. My son is ten and found guitar too challenging for his fine motor issues. Reading the music, holding the guitar properly, and finger placement.
    He wants to play the saxaphone or drums. I just want him happy but playing a instrument…any ideas??

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