Music to our ears? You wouldn’t read about it. Music, reading and intelligence. Dec 2018

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

PDF available at https://tinyurl.com/ybllyw7u


There has been a great deal of interest in recent years into the effects on us produced by music. There are numerous recognised effects from listening to music: pleasure, evocation of memories, emotions, etc. Beyond these well-understood effects are newer attempts employ music to assist people in dealing with life distress through music therapy, for example, in cancer, depression, pain, fatigue, anxiety, and dementia to name a few (Ellis, 2014). However, beyond listening, there has also been an interest in the possibility that musical training may produce effects beyond the expected musical skill outcomes. So, we’ve seen headlines such as Learning a musical instrument boosts kids' brains, How music lessons can improve language skills, Music Lessons Improve Children's Cognitive Skills and Academic Performance, Music Playschool Enhances Children's Linguistic Skills. This interest has been further amplified by studies employing brain imaging techniques that add a perceived authority, and evoke great public interest.

So might a program in one skill domain produce an effect in another domain quite unlike the first? The concepts of near and far transfer are useful here. Near transfer involves instruction that is successful in producing attainment of the actual and similar skills taught to a learner. Far transfer occurs when there is transfer of learner behaviour from the taught context to another dissimilar context. So, if your musical instruction enhances the learner’s general musical performance then near transfer has occurred. So, that shows that musical skill has improved through the program. But, can the individual now do useful things beyond the taught domain? Is the improvement evident because of this musical training also paralleled by improvement in a targeted cognitive or literacy domain? If so, this represents far transfer. It is something of a holy grail in education. Two birds with one stone. Not easy.

“It is these underlying basic processes, insights, and modes of cognizing that are reputed to have enduring applicability beyond the specific lessons in which they are taught (see Sewell, Hauser, & Featherman, 1976; Walberg, 1982; Wiley, 1976). Hence, it is a presupposition of educators that a student taught to permute a set of items in school will transfer this skill to sets of items confronted outside of school; a student taught arithmetic will transfer this knowledge to calculate a bowling average; a student taught to organize items hierarchically will transfer this skill to answering questions on IQ tests (Ceci, 1991). The transferability of learning is of prime importance in evaluating these educational claims … If the skills developed by such efforts do not transfer beyond the training context, much of the investment may be considered wasted, as noted in a National Research Council report on enhancing human performance (Druckman & Bjork, 1994). Nonetheless, this is precisely the criticism that a number of scholars have made about the failure of transfer studies to document that training in one context or on one type of problem generalizes to related problems in different contexts. Consider these examples:

“Transfer has been one of the most actively studied phenomena in psychology.”….Reviewers are in almost total agreement that little transfer occurs. (Detterman, 1993, p. 5, p. 8)."

“The question for which we do have some empirical answers has to do with how generalizable cognitive training is from one subject area to another. As of now, the answer is not very much (Schooler, 1989, p. 11).” (Barnett & Ceci, 2002, 613-614)

So, there is a tension between those who argue for the far transfer of musical training to an unrelated sphere, say, reading and those who remain sceptical about its likelihood. This latter perspective is exemplified by the statement: What you teach is what you get, and where you teach it is where you get it (anon). In other words, thus far, efforts have been more rewarded by directly teaching the requisite skills. That doesn’t imply the impossibility of music training to assist other functions, such as literacy or intelligence, but requires strong evidence before any consensus is likely to be obtained.

Is there any theoretical rationale for music training to have a cognitive impact? Increases in some phonological awareness skills have been associated with music training, as have a variety of other auditory skills, such as improved sense of pitch and rhythm. It is known that there is an association between phonological awareness and reading, so a causal link is feasible with beginning readers, when a higher grade phonological skill - phonemic awareness is believed important. However, this association is tenuous. Some further suggest that training has an even broader impact, including on general cognitive functioning. It is drawing a long bow to find a theoretical link between the two.

So, what has the research shown to date? Well, to summarise, it’s not ready for prime time. The supportive research has been dogged by methodological problems. Too many studies have been inadequately designed, and/or correlational, so conclusions have been dismissed as inappropriate. Underlining this weakness, the effect sizes of low grade studies, suggestive of worthwhile effects, are markedly reduced when high grade studies of the same domain are performed. Recent reviews and meta-analyses have found little or no far transfer from music training to either IQ or literacy.


Quotes from the research:


“Music training is commonly thought to have a positive impact on overall cognitive skills and academic achievement. This belief relies on the idea that engaging in an intellectually demanding activity helps to foster overall cognitive function. In this brief review, we show that, while music skill positively correlates with cognitive ability, music training does not enhance non-music cognitive skills or academic achievement. Interestingly, no significant effect on cognitive outcomes is observed even when music training leads to changes in the participants’ functional neural patterns. Crucially, the conclusion that music skills acquired by training do not generalize to non-music skills has been reached by several independent research groups via different methodologies. Such converging evidence suggests that the outcomes are highly reliable. The results have major implications. First, implementing music-training programs with the purpose of boosting individuals’ academic achievement or domain-general cognitive skills is not recommendable. Second, neural patterns induced by music training probably denote improvements in music-specific skills rather than overall cognitive function. Third, Thorndike and Woodworth’s (1901) common elements theory and theories based on chunking find further support. To date, far transfer remains a chimera.”

Taken together, the findings of the research into music expertise and music training depict a consistent picture: while a positive relationship between music skill and cognitive ability does exist, the benefits of music training do not go beyond the acquisition of music-related skills. In other words, engaging in music does not make people smarter. Rather, smarter people are more likely to engage and succeed in music. … Even though music training does not lead to far cognitive transfer, the study of the cognitive and neural correlates of music expertise still represents a well-established and promising program of research. … Similarly, the lack of far-transfer effects does not necessarily imply that schools should abandon music instruction. Rather, educators and policymakers deciding about the presence of music in school programs should be aware that music training benefits only music-related skills. As far as we are concerned, even in the absence of other benefits, it is worthwhile learning an art present in nearly all the cultures in human history. It is worth emphasizing that the findings reported here about the null effects of music training do not imply that music is a worthless activity. Rather, the purpose of this article has been to clarify what are the real effects of music training in order to allow people to make informed decisions. If one engages in music as a profession or just for leisure, there is no reason to stop. Like many other intellectual and artistic disciplines (e.g., board games, drama, and sports), playing music may represent an empowering activity for anyone who enjoys it. On the other hand, if the aim is to foster academic achievement or domain-general cognitive ability, then engaging in music activities would be simply pointless.”

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2018). Elvis has left the building: Correlational but not causal relationship between music skill and cognitive ability. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.17808.66569.


“A co-twin control design combined with classical twin-modelling based on a sample of more than 10,500 twins was used to explore causal associations between music practice and IQ as well as underlying genetic and environmental influences. As expected, phenotypic associations were moderate (r = 0.11 and r = 0.10 for males and females, respectively). However, the relationship disappeared when controlling for genetic and shared environmental influences using the co-twin control method, indicating that a highly practiced twin did not have higher IQ than the untrained co-twin. In line with that finding, the relationship between practice and IQ was mostly due to shared genetic influences. Findings strongly suggest that associations between music practice and IQ in the general population are noncausal in nature.” (p.504)

Mosing, M.A., Madison, G., Pedersen, N.L., & Ullen, F. (2016). Investigating cognitive transfer within the framework of music practice: Genetic pleiotropy rather than causality. Developmental Science, 19(3), 504–512.


“The current report provides no consistent evidence for cognitive transfer from music training: preschool music classes did not cause detectable skill increases in the cognitive domains of spatial, linguistic, or numerical reasoning. We assessed transfer effects of music education by measuring cognitive skills in specific domains in preschoolers, after completing an ecologically representative program of parent-child music enrichment. We conducted two randomized trials, which together included both a comparison group with alternate (visual arts) training, and a no-training control. While the results from our first trial appeared to show effects of arts instruction on two spatial abilities, consistent with past correlational research [28], our second, more powerful follow up trial failed to support this finding. Together, these findings suggest that preschool music education may not increase the spatial, linguistic or numerical skills measured herein, and underscore the importance of replication and correctly implemented control groups in studies assessing the cognitive benefits of educational programs. … When taken together with existing literature, the current experiments are the sixth and seventh attempt to study the cognitive effects of music training via RCTs. We add a negative finding to the small body of randomized trials on the subject, complicating an already unclear pattern of results, but helping to resolve a potential publication bias in this literature [14–15]. Further RCTs are necessary to determine the existence and extent of extrinsic cognitive benefits of music education in childhood, as well as the musical benefits of musical experiences. Regardless of any potential transfer effects, we echo the view of Winner and Hetland [48] that the primary benefit of music education for parents and children is self-evident: to improve the musical skills and repertoire of parents and children along with their appreciation and enjoyment of musical activities. Whether or not future studies uncover reliable relations between music education and extra-musical aspects of cognitive development, instruction in the arts likely will thrive for its intrinsic value.” (p. 9, 11)

Mehr, S. A., Schachner, A., Katz, R. C., & Spelke, E. S. (2013). Two randomized trials provide no consistent evidence for nonmusical cognitive benefits of brief preschool music enrichment. PLoS ONE, 8:e82007. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082007


“Music training has been recently claimed to enhance children and young adolescents' cognitive and academic skills. However, substantive research on transfer of skills suggests that far-transfer - i.e., the transfer of skills between two areas only loosely related to each other - occurs rarely. In this meta-analysis, we examined the available experimental evidence regarding the impact of music training on children and young adolescents' cognitive and academic skills. The results of the random-effects models showed (a) a small overall effect size d = 0.16; (b) slightly greater effect sizes with regard to intelligence d = 0.35 and memory-related outcomes d = 0:34; and (c) an inverse relation between the size of the effects and the methodological quality of the study design. These results suggest that music training does not reliably enhance children and young adolescents' cognitive or academic skills, and that previous positive findings were probably due to confounding variables.” (p.55)

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). When the music's over. Does music skill transfer to children's and young adolescents' cognitive and academic skills? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 20, 55-67.


“Several studies have reported benefits of musical training in domains related to language, for example, as verbal memory (Ho, 2003), reading (Hurwitz, 1975), and processing of lexical stress (Kolinsky, 2009), and also mathematical achievements (Cheek, 1999) and IQ (intelligence quotient) (Schellenberg, 2004), but the knowledge about this topic is non-specific and contradictory. It is therefore important to critically analyze and synthesize the evidence for the effectiveness of music education as a means of improving reading in children who have dyslexia.” (p.4)

“We retrieved 851 references via the search strategy. No randomized controlled trials testing music education for the improvement of reading skills in children with dyslexia could be included in this review. … There is no evidence available from randomized controlled trials on which to base a judgment about the effectiveness of music education for the improvement of reading skills in children and adolescents with dyslexia. This uncertainty warrants further research via randomized controlled trials, involving an interdisciplinary team: musicians, hearing and speech therapists, psychologists, and physicians.” (p. 2)

Cogo-Moreira, H., Andriolo, R.B., Yazigi, L, Ploubidis, G.B., Brandão de Ávila, C.R., & Mari, J.J. (2012). Music education for improving reading skills in children and adolescents with dyslexia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD009133. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009133.pub2.


“Chess masters and expert musicians appear to be, on average, more intelligent than the general population. Some researchers have thus claimed that playing chess or learning music enhances children’s cognitive abilities and academic attainment. We here present two meta-analyses assessing the effect of chess and music instruction on children’s cognitive and academic skills. A third meta-analysis evaluated the effects of working memory training—a cognitive skill correlated with music and chess expertise—on the same variables. The results show small to moderate effects. However, the effect sizes are inversely related to the quality of the experimental design (e.g., presence of active control groups). This pattern of results casts serious doubts on the effectiveness of chess, music, and working memory training. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings; extend the debate to other types of training such as spatial training, brain training, and video games; and conclude that far transfer of learning rarely occurs.”

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). Does far transfer exist? Negative evidence from chess, music, and working memory training. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 515–520.


“We sought to clarify whether the positive association between music lessons and reading ability is explained better by shared resources for processing pitch and temporal information, or by general cognitive abilities. Participants were native and nonnative speakers of English with varying levels of music training. We measured reading ability (comprehension and speed), music-perception skills (melody and rhythm), general cognitive ability (nonverbal intelligence, short-term memory, and working memory), and socioeconomic status (SES; family income, parents’ education). Reading ability was associated positively with music training, English as a native language, and general cognitive ability. The association between reading and music training was significant after SES, native language, and music-perception skills were controlled. After general cognitive abilities were held constant, however, there was no longer an association between reading and music training. These findings suggest that the association between reading ability and music training is a consequence of general cognitive abilities.” (p. 992)

Swaminathan, S., Schellenberg, E.G., & Venkatesan, K. (2018). Explaining the association between music training and reading in adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44(6), 992–999.


“The global finding was that neither intervention had any substantial impact on a broad range of psychosocial and cognitive measures beyond that observed in alternative arts programmes or continued normal curriculum. … The absence of effects of school-based music instruction reported in the current studies, across a comprehensive set of psychosocial and cognitive measures, suggests that such benefits may be limited to the more focussed and intensive instruction available in private or small group tuition. For instance, Cheek and Smith (1999) found that private instrumental lessons yielded improvements in mathematics achievement that were not observed following school-based music lessons. This may be because class-based instruction is less likely to be able to cater for the varying levels of ability within the class. In addition, music training requires individual attention to foster skill advancement, interest and motivation in a classroom setting (Pitts & Davidson, 2000). The current findings suggest that this might be particularly challenging in the music classroom, as we observed significant reductions in student motivation and engagement in students receiving increased music training in Study 1 that were not apparent in those receiving additional drama or art classes. In her review of the effects of music training on children, Hallam (2010) concludes that many of the non-musical benefits only occur if the music experience is enjoyable. … Importantly, the current studies were experimental in design, and therefore are not subject to the limitations of correlational studies. In this context, it is of interest that Lu (1986), using an experimental design with random allocation of participants to groups, also failed to find any effect of music instruction on reading ability in first graders. This reinforces cautions when interpreting significant findings of correlational studies in that superior performance or enhanced well-being in students choosing to partake in music classes may be attributable to some other pre-existing difference across groups (such as socioeconomic status or IQ). … The current findings, however, argue against attempts to justify music education by its non-musical or transfer effects, and instead re-focusses the argument on musical benefits of learning music (Reimer, 1999); that is, music education should be considered a valuable end in itself, rather than simply a means to other ends (Taylor, 1988). This intrinsic love of learning music was evident in the participants of our studies, and confirms that music education remains valuable for its intrinsic benefits even in the absence of cognitive or psychosocial effects.” (p.66, 68, 69, 70)

Rickard, N. S., Bambrick, C. J., & Gill, A. (2012). Absence of widespread psychosocial and cognitive effects of school-based music instruction in 10-13-year-old students. International Journal of Music Education, 30, 57-78. doi:10.1177/0255761411431399


“We examined whether the link between intelligence and musical expertise is better explained by formal music lessons or music aptitude. Musically trained and untrained adults completed tests of nonverbal intelligence (Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices) and music aptitude (Musical Ear Test). They also provided information about their history of music lessons and socioeconomic status (SES). Duration of music training was associated positively with SES (mother's education), nonverbal intelligence, melody aptitude, and rhythm aptitude. Intelligence and music aptitude were also positively associated. The association between music training and intelligence remained evident after controlling for SES, but it disappeared after controlling for music aptitude. By contrast, music aptitude had a strong correlation with intelligence even after accounting for music training and SES. Thus, the association between music training and intelligence may arise because high-functioning individuals are more likely than other individuals to have good aptitude for music and to take music lessons.” (p.119)

Swaminathan, S., Schellenberg, E.G., & Khalil, S. (2017). Revisiting the association between music lessons and intelligence: Training effects or music aptitude? Intelligence, 62, 119–124.


Supportive (if equivocal) studies


“In sum, inconclusive results (Detterman, 1993; Halpern, 1998; Barnett and Ceci, 2002; Engle, 2002; Ho et al., 2003; Costa-Giomi, 2004; Schellenberg, 2006; Degé and Schwarzer, 2011; Degé et al., 2011; Moreno et al., 2011; Tsang and Conrad, 2011; Rickard et al., 2012; Corrigall et al., 2013; Mehr et al., 2013; Roden et al., 2013, 2014; Rodrigues et al., 2013; Benz et al., 2015; dos SantosLuiz et al., 2015; Flaugnacco et al., 2015; Zuk et al., 2015; Slevc et al., 2016; Swaminathan and Schellenberg, 2016; Dumont et al., 2017; Holochwost et al., 2017; Kraus and White-Schwoch, 2017; Sala and Gobet, 2017) often find their origin in being set up as correlational. Investigations using a longitudinal design are often quasi-experimental designs lacking randomization (Roden et al., 2014) or use non-active control groups (Engle, 2002; Ho et al., 2003; Costa-Giomi, 2004; Schellenberg, 2006; Degé et al., 2011; Moreno et al., 2011; Tsang and Conrad, 2011; Rodrigues et al., 2013; Roden et al., 2014; Slevc et al., 2016; Dumont et al., 2017; Holochwost et al., 2017). In light of these ambiguous findings, three recent reviews (Benz et al., 2015; Dumont et al., 2017; Sala and Gobet, 2017) have shown that research into the effects of music interventions on cognitive skills, even though promising, still need more randomized longitudinal studies to support a positive claim.” (p. 2)

Jaschke, A.C., Honing, H., & Scherder, E.J.A. (2018). Longitudinal analysis of music education on executive functions in primary school children. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00103


“Children's engagement in music practice is associated with enhancements in literacy-related language skills, as demonstrated by multiple reports of correlation across these two domains. Training studies have tested whether engaging in music training directly transfers benefit to children's literacy skill development. Results of such studies, however, are mixed. Interpretation of these mixed results is made more complex by the fact that a wide range of literacy-related outcome measures are used across these studies. Here, we address these challenges via a meta-analytic approach. A comprehensive literature review of peer-reviewed music training studies was built around key criteria needed to test the direct transfer hypothesis, including: (a) inclusion of music training vs. control groups; (b) inclusion of pre- vs. post-comparison measures, and (c) indication that reading instruction was held constant across groups. Thirteen studies were identified (n = 901). Two classes of outcome measures emerged with sufficient overlap to support meta-analysis: phonological awareness and reading fluency. Hours of training, age, and type of control intervention were examined as potential moderators. Results supported the hypothesis that music training leads to gains in phonological awareness skills. The effect isolated by contrasting gains in music training vs. gains in control was small relative to the large variance in these skills (d = 0.2). Interestingly, analyses revealed that transfer effects for rhyming skills tended to grow stronger with increased hours of training. In contrast, no significant aggregate transfer effect emerged for reading fluency measures, despite some studies reporting large training effects. The potential influence of other study design factors were considered, including intervention design, IQ, and SES.” (p.1)

“Results of the meta-analysis on the broad category of Phonological Awareness outcomes suggest modest gains (a small effect size of d = 0.20) for music vs. control groups. This finding is in line with a number of other studies showing better phonological awareness skills in musicians compared to their non-musician peers (Forgeard et al., 2008; Zuk et al., 2013b), and also converges with work showing correlations between music aptitude and phonological skills in children (Lamb and Gregory, 1993; Anvari et al., 2002; Peynircioglu et al., 2002; Dellatolas et al., 2009; Tierney and Kraus, 2013a). When broken down into subcategories (Rhyming and Other Phonological outcomes), moderator analysis revealed that the effectiveness of music intervention on Rhyming outcomes was dependent on the number of training hours. Total music intervention training hours ranged between 3 and 90 h in the studies included here, and the model estimated that at least 40 h are needed to improve Rhyming skills. To put this number in perspective, other work (e.g., Hambrick et al., 2014) has shown that thousands of hours are typically involved in reaching adult levels of musical expertise.” (p.10)

Overall, the findings of the current meta-analyses are somewhat inconclusive with regards to the hypothesized impact of music education on reading-related skills. The literature search revealed a large amount of variability in outcomes studied, content and intensity of music training, native language of participants, type of subject populations (typically developing vs. reading disordered) and age of participants. In addition, some of the study designs in the set of studies included in this metaanalysis are laden with potential biases that make it difficult to draw broader conclusions from the findings (see Table 3). These inconsistencies include variability in control group activities, lack of information about IQ differences or equivalence across groups; and only 6 studies of 12 reported controlling for socio-economic status across groups. Importantly, most of the studies were quasi-experimental and did not use random assignment to create treatment and control groups. In the case of studies that compared a class (or school) receiving the intervention vs. another control class or school, it is possible that other differences in teacher/student dynamics and educational environment differed across the groups (and therefore either diminished or exaggerated the gains in music training). Although we were able to code and report many of the above characteristics, there were too few studies included in the total meta-analysis to allow a sufficiently powered moderator analysis that would effectively shed light on whether these study characteristics were linked with different trends of results. Thus, the limitations of the present meta-analysis are the heterogeneity of approaches and study designs used, and that the dataset was too underpowered to test all of the potentially influential moderator variables that were coded.” (p.11)

Gordon, R.L., Fehd, H.M., & McCandliss, B.D. (2015). Does music training enhance literacy skills? A meta-analysis. Front. Psychol., 6, 1777. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01777


“Eight studies addressed the association between music-related activities and a range of reading skills with inconsistent findings. The results of the study of Cogo-Moreira et al. (2013) [21] indicated no improvement in word accuracy, in-text accuracy and non-word accuracy of children in the music intervention schools compared to the children in control ones. In contrast, the RCT results of Flaugnacco et al. (2015) [17] showed better performance of the music group on reading skills in comparison to the control group. Using an experimental design, Bonacina et al. (2015) [20] randomly assigned 11–14 year-old children to a computer-assisted, rhythmic reading training (RRT) (n = 14) or a control group (n = 14), for which no specific activity addressed to improve reading skills was carried out. Results indicated that RRT had a positive effect on both reading speed and accuracy. The effect of RRT seemed to be specifically on reading skills, as no difference in rhythm perception between the two groups was found. Moritz et al. (2013) [15] found that kindergarteners' rhythm ability was significantly correlated to their phonological awareness and basic word identification skills in second grade. Using a longitudinal design, Slater et al. (2014) [22] compared reading ability of 42 low-income, Spanish-English bilingual children aged 6-to-9, pseudo-randomly assigned to a group music instruction program outside school or a waiting list control group. Twenty-three children in the music group maintained their age-normed performance on the composite reading measure after 1 year, whereas the performance of 19 children in the matched control group deteriorated over the same period of time, consistent with expected declines in this population. Rautenberg (2013) [23], in an experimental study, measured the correlations between musical skills and decoding skills and the effects of musical training on word-level reading abilities. One hundred fifty-nine seven year-old children were randomly allocated to a special music training program (n = 33), a visual arts training program (n = 41), or no training program for the period of the study (n = 85). Results showed the special music training had a significant effect on reading accuracy in word reading. Additionally, positive correlations were found between rhythmical ability and decoding skills. Tonal skills were not correlated with reading skills. In a correlational study of Corrigall and Trainor (2011) [19], it was shown that duration of music training (i.e., the number of years of training on their primary instrument, plus the number of years of training on any additional instruments) was associated with reading comprehension, but not with word decoding among 46 6–9 year-olds. The findings are in contrast to a longitudinal study from Bergman Nutley et al. (2014) [35] which revealed that practicing a musical instrument was not associated with reading comprehension.

Of the eight studies measuring the effects on reading, two studies used an RCT design with pseudo randomization [17] [21] and blinded outcome assessors [17]. Their findings are contradictory; Flaugnacco et al. (2015) [17] found a positive influence of music, whereas the results of Cogo-Moreira et al. (2013) [21] indicated no effect. Results of two studies that used an experimental design with randomization [20] [23] illustrated potential benefits of a music training program. Of these two studies, one included a passive control group, offering no music training program [20] while the other included both a passive and active control group [23], allowing for a more comprehensive comparison. The results of the longitudinal study of Slater et al. (2015) [46] also point to beneficial effects. However, an active control group could not be included. (Partially) positive correlations were shown by two studies [15] [19]. However, correlational studies do not allow for causal inferences. In another longitudinal study [35], participants were compared to themselves. Attrition rate and practice effects might, however, have influenced the results. As results of above-mentioned studies are both positive and negative, findings in this area are inconclusive.” (p.694)

Dumont, E., Syurina, E.V., Feron F.J.M., & van Hooren, S. (2017). Music interventions and child development: A critical review and further directions. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 694


“These findings can be interpreted in the theoretical frameworks of Overy (2003), Tallal and Gaab (2006), and Goswami (2015) who proposed that paying attention to various sound features intrinsic to music (particularly rhythm, phoneme rise time, and duration) can be helpful for phonemic awareness to emerge that, in turn, is a requirement for literacy skills. However, it is noteworthy that we still lack direct evidence for music training enhancing literacy skills as such. … How to choose the most optimal design for grouping the participants into different activities? In this context, some scholars emphasize the need for randomized controlled trials, following the traditions of animal and clinical research (e.g., see Sala and Gobet, 2017). In this practice, as well as in pseudorandom group allocation, biases caused by preexisting differences in any perceptual, cognitive, or socioemotional cause can be ruled out. In parallel, when conducting long-term follow-up studies, the benefits of group allocation based on preference and motivation are obvious. As put by Habibi et al. (2017): “.., if children were not motivated and not emotionally engaged in the chosen activity, it is unlikely that they would continue participation over the long period necessary for a longitudinal investigation.”” (p.3, 4)

Tervaniemi, M., Tao, S., & Huotilainen, M. (2018). Promises of music in education? Frontiers of Education, 3 , 74. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2018.00074


Overall, the evidence for causality between music training and inhibition is still scarce  45, 48, and more research is needed. Many of the studies cited above have used time-consuming interventions that can rarely be implemented in kindergartens’ and schools’ weekly curricula and thus, are not available to all children, irrespectively of their background.” (p.2)

Linnavalli, T., Putkinen, V., Lipsanen, J., Huotilainen, M., & Tervaniemi1, M. (2018). Music playschool enhances children’s linguistic skills. Nature: Scientific Reports, 8, 8767


“The association between music lessons and general intelligence has been considered the best example of far transfer resulting from music training, because the association between music training and general intelligence is stronger than the associations between music training and any of the subcomponents of general intelligence, such as verbal intelligence or spatial-temporal abilities (e.g., Schellenberg, 2006). The mechanisms supporting far transfer are difficult to explain, however, and attempts at identifying how music training affects general intelligence have thus far failed. … It is of course possible, indeed quite likely, that children who are better readers, who are more intelligent, and who tend to work hard and persist on tasks (such as challenging themselves more on difficult reading passages) are more likely to take music lessons in the first place, to begin lessons at an earlier age, and to stay in music lessons longer compared to their less intelligent and less hardworking peers” (p.148, 153)

Corrigall, C.A., & Trainor, L.J. (2011). Associations between length of music training and reading skills in children. Music Perception, 29(2), 147–155.


“All in all, our review points to an association of musical training and enhanced cognitive performance spanning from executive functions to creativity. That is, even if in some cases the benefits were restricted to the auditory domain, the available studies suggest that musical experience is linked to benefits in unpracticed tasks and cognitive functions unrelated (or at least not obviously related) to musical abilities. However, it is important to note that the causal relation between the observed benefits and musical experience may not be straightforward, although the results of the reviewed longitudinal studies are encouraging. Furthermore, as pointed out by Schubert and Strobach (2012), in training studies in general, expectation effects may contribute to a possible confound in interpreting the results because the knowledge of a study’s hypothesis may change subjects’ behavior in the study. Second, it would be advisable to employ large test batteries which enable the interpretation of the results in terms of level of cognitive processes and not individual tasks (Green et al., 2014). Additionally, the selection of the proper control group is a relevant issue in musical training. Indeed, active control groups are required given that simple test–retest or passive control group do not rule out potential confounds that do not permit a meaningful interpretation of the results. As pointed out by Schellenberg (2005), ideally, the active control should be another activity from the arts, such as drama training. The good thing of such an active control is that it is typically adaptive by nature (i.e., theater lessons tend to increase in difficulty according to the progression of the acting course). Moreover, it is not to exclude that personality (Corrigall et al., 2013) and preexisting neuro-developmental factors may play a mediating role. For instance, individuals with a genetic predisposition that favors executive control functions might be drawn to music more strongly, so that what looks like an effect of practice might actually represent a kind of self-selection. Addressing this issue will require (more) longitudinal studies (Bergman Nutley et al., 2014; Roden et al., 2014). Finally, similarly to other fields of cognitive training (Colzato et al., 2014), it may be interesting to consider individual differences more systematically. Indeed, if musical training really affects neuroplasticity, it makes sense to assume that the effect of music on performance depends on the pre-experimental performance level of the individual—be it in terms of compensation (so that worse performers benefit more) or predisposition (so that some are more sensitive to music interventions).” (p. 3-4)

Benz, S., Sellaro, R., Hommel, B., and Colzato, L. S. (2015). Music makes the world go round: The impact of musical training on non-musical cognitive functions – a review. Frontiers of Psychology, 6, 2023. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02023


“The beneficial effects of musical training are not limited to enhancement of musical skills, but extend to language skills. Here, we review evidence that musical training can enhance reading ability. First, we discuss five subskills underlying reading acquisition-phonological awareness, speech-in-noise perception, rhythm perception, auditory working memory, and the ability to learn sound patterns-and show that each is linked to music experience. We link these five subskills through a unifying biological framework, positing that they share a reliance on auditory neural synchrony. After laying this theoretical groundwork for why musical training might be expected to enhance reading skills, we review the results of longitudinal studies providing evidence for a role for musical training in enhancing language abilities. Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that musical training can provide an effective developmental educational strategy for all children, including those with language learning impairments.” (p.209)

Tierney A., & Kraus, N. (2013). Music training for the development of reading skills. Progress in Brain Research, 207, 209-41.


“Musician children and adults demonstrate biological distinctions in auditory processing relative to nonmusicians. For example, musician children and adults have more robust neural encoding of speech harmonics, more adaptive sound processing, and more precise neural encoding of acoustically similar sounds; these enhancements may contribute to musicians' linguistic advantages, such as for hearing speech in noise and reading. Such findings have inspired proposals that the auditory and cognitive stimulation induced by musical practice renders musicians enhanced according to biological metrics germane to communication. Cross-sectional methodologies comparing musicians with nonmusicians, however, are limited by the inability to disentangle training-related effects from demographic and innate qualities that may predistinguish musicians. Over the past several years, our laboratory has addressed this problem by examining the emergence of neural markers of musicianship in children and adolescents using longitudinal approaches to track the development of biological indices of speech processing. This work was conducted in partnership with successful community-based music programs, thus avoiding reliance on a synthetic program for the purposes of laboratory study. Outcomes indicate that many of musicians' auditory-related biological enhancements emerge with training and may promote the acquisition of language skills, including in at-risk populations.” (p. 163)

Kraus, N., & Strait, D.L. (2015). Emergence of biological markers of musicianship with school-based music instruction. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1337, 163-9.


“There is some evidence for a role of music training in boosting phonological awareness, word segmentation, working memory, as well as reading abilities in children with typical development. Poor performance in tasks requiring temporal processing, rhythm perception and sensorimotor synchronization seems to be a crucial factor underlying dyslexia in children. Interestingly, children with dyslexia show deficits in temporal processing, both in language and in music. Within this framework, we test the hypothesis that music training, by improving temporal processing and rhythm abilities, improves phonological awareness and reading skills in children with dyslexia. The study is a prospective, multicenter, open randomized controlled trial, consisting of test, rehabilitation and re-test (ID NCT02316873). After rehabilitation, the music group (N = 24) performed better than the control group (N = 22) in tasks assessing rhythmic abilities, phonological awareness and reading skills. This is the first randomized control trial testing the effect of music training in enhancing phonological and reading abilities in children with dyslexia. The findings show that music training can modify reading and phonological abilities even when these skills are severely impaired. Through the enhancement of temporal processing and rhythmic skills, music might become an important tool in both remediation and early intervention programs.” … While the evidence of a causal role of music training on reading abilities is scarce [25], several studies have shown that musical perceptual abilities correlate with phonological awareness and reading abilities, and can also be predictive of preschoolers’ reading developmental trajectories [30–33]. While several researchers have hypothesized that there might be a benefit of music training on reading skills in children with dyslexia, so far supporting evidence is scarce [34–37]. Most importantly, this hypothesis has never been addressed using a randomized controlled trial in children with dyslexia—rather than children without other confounding comorbidities-and with a sufficiently long training duration [38]. (p.1, 3)

Flaugnacco, E., Lopez, L., Terribili, C., Montico, M., Zoia, S., & Schön, D. (2015) Music training increases phonological awareness and reading skills in developmental dyslexia: A randomized control trial. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0138715. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0138715


“Initial results from Gordon et al.’s (2015) meta-analysis show that broad category Phonological Awareness outcomes were slightly greater for children who received musical training vs. control groups. Their results reaffirm existing findings demonstrating that musical training and aptitude may enhance language skills. Notably, musicians show improved phonological awareness skills compared to their non-musician counterparts (Forgeard et al., 2008; Zuk et al., 2013b); music aptitude correlates with phonological skills in children (Lamb and Gregory, 1993; Anvari et al., 2002; Peynircioglu et al., 2002; Dellatolas et al., 2009; Chobert et al., 2011; Tierney and Kraus, 2013), and the positive effects of intensive musical training on phonological representations in dyslexics and normal reading children (Chobert et al., 2014; Habib et al., 2016). However, Gordon and colleagues distinguish their work from previous studies by creating subcategories for Rhyming and Other Phonological outcomes that allowed them to more clearly identify the reading-related skills that may benefit from musical training. Gordon et al.’s approach revealed that 40 hr or more of musical training specifically improved rhyming skills. Although, they are cautious to not overstate their findings, Gordon et al.’s (2015) work is consistent with previous research connecting rhythm and reading skills (Dellatolas et al., 2009; Strait and Kraus, 2011; Tierney and Kraus, 2013; Woodruff Carr et al., 2014). In addition to arguing in favor of applying more refined measures of reading-related skills, the authors further suggest that our understanding of the relationship between musical training and reading may benefit from studying a broader range of musical experience beyond formal musical training. For example, similar meta-analyses demonstrate positive results for reading education programs that incorporate musical components into the curricula (Standley, 2008). More specifically, when chanting or singing is included in the classroom, children tend to have improved phonological awareness and literacy skills, suggesting that even informal forms of musical training may enhance literacy skills (Standley and Hughes, 1997; Darrow, 2009; Bolduc and Lefebvre, 2012).” (p.1-2)

Jantzen, M.G. (2017). Toward a more conclusive understanding of the relationship between musical training and reading. Frontiers of Psychology, 8(263). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00263


“Children from disadvantaged backgrounds often face impoverished auditory environments, such as greater exposure to ambient noise and fewer opportunities to participate in complex language interactions during development. These circumstances increase their risk for academic failure and dropout. Given the academic and neural benefits associated with musicianship, music training may be one method for providing auditory enrichment to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We followed a group of primary-school students from gang reduction zones in Los Angeles, CA, USA for 2 years as they participated in Harmony Project. By providing free community music instruction for disadvantaged children, Harmony Project promotes the healthy development of children as learners, the development of children as ambassadors of peace and understanding, and the development of stronger communities. Children who were more engaged in the music program-as defined by better attendance and classroom participation-developed stronger brain encoding of speech after 2 years than their less-engaged peers in the program. Additionally, children who were more engaged in the program showed increases in reading scores, while those less engaged did not show improvements. The neural gains accompanying music engagement were seen in the very measures of neural speech processing that are weaker in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our results suggest that community music programs such as Harmony Project provide a form of auditory enrichment that counteracts some of the biological adversities of growing up in poverty, and can further support community-based interventions aimed at improving child health and wellness.”

Kraus, N., Hornickel, J., Strait, D.L., Slater, J., & Thompson, E. (2014). Engagement in community music classes sparks neuroplasticity and language development in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Frontiers of Psychology, 5, 1403.


“All in all, on the basis of the studies mentioned above, the following factors of music-based amelioration and training can be proposed to enhance learning and auditory neurocognition: (1) sufficient amount of training, (2) high personal motivation to practice and reward from practicing, (3) group activities supporting learning, (4) combining both formal and informal learning methods, and (5) individual learning schemes taking into account the learner’s specific interests.” (p.151)

Huotilainen, M., & Tervaniemi, M. (2018). Planning music-based amelioration and training in infancy and childhood based on neural evidence. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Science, 1423, 146–154.


So, what’s the takeaway? Music is one of the most glorious cultural achievements of humans. Its contributions to society are vast. It helps us deal with life’s stress; lifts our mood, calms us or excites us; it helps bring us together. It communicates when words cannot. Its capacity to cross cultural and language barriers makes it a force for peace.

Music expresses that which can’t be put into words and that which cannot remain silent. – Victor Hugo

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain. – Bob Marley

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak. I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd, And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd, By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound. - William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697:

So, does it do more than these things? Might it enhance intellectual and academic skills? Maybe, but for now, it remains unproven. That doesn’t mean it will never be found worthwhile. It simply means that an array of strong empirical, independent evidence from well-designed studies remains necessary, particularly for struggling students. Though musical interventions are unlikely to be harmful, there is an opportunity-cost for students (and often a financial cost to parents), along with a residue of negative emotion for both parents and child if the approach has no significant effect. Though cognitive enhancement remains elusive, we already have powerful interventions for aiding students at-risk of failure in literacy. Unfortunately, these evidence-based practices, that have already met the criteria for effectiveness outlined in this paper, remain too little employed in our school systems.

References:

Barnett, S.M., & Ceci, S.J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 612-637.

Cogo-Moreira, H., Andriolo, R.B., Yazigi, L., Ploubidis, G.B., Brandão de Ávila, C.R., & Mari J.J. (2012). Music education for improving reading skills in children and adolescents with dyslexia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD009133. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009133.pub2. Dyslexia, NHS Choices.

Corrigall, C.A., & Trainor, L.J. (2011). Associations between length of music training and reading skills in children. Music Perception, 29(2), 147–155.

Dumont, E., Syurina, E.V., Feron F.J.M., & van Hooren, S. (2017). Music interventions and child development: A critical review and further directions. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 694

Ellis, M. (2014). How does music benefit the brain? Medical News Today, Monday 12 May 2014. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/276595.php?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Medical_News_Today_TrendMD_1

Flaugnacco, E., Lopez, L., Terribili, C., Montico, M., Zoia, S., & Schön, D. (2015) Music training increases phonological awareness and reading skills in developmental dyslexia: A randomized control trial. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0138715. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0138715

Gordon, R.L., Fehd, H.M., & McCandliss, B.D. (2015). Does music training enhance literacy skills? A meta-analysis. Frontiers of Psychology, 6, 1777. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01777

Huotilainen, M., & Tervaniemi, M. (2018). Planning music-based amelioration and training in infancy and childhood based on neural evidence. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1423, 146–154.

Jantzen, M.G. (2017). Toward a more conclusive understanding of the relationship between musical training and reading. Frontiers of Psychology, 8(263). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00263

Kraus, N., & Strait, D.L. (2015). Emergence of biological markers of musicianship with school-based music instruction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337, 163-9.

Kraus, N., Hornickel, J., Strait, D.L., Slater, J., & Thompson, E. (2014). Engagement in community music classes sparks neuroplasticity and language development in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Frontiers of Psychology, 5, 1403

Linnavalli, T., Putkinen, V., Lipsanen, J., Huotilainen, M., & Tervaniemi1, M. (2018). Music playschool enhances children’s linguistic skills. Nature: Scientific Reports, 8, 8767

Mehr, S. A., Schachner, A., Katz, R. C., & Spelke, E. S. (2013). Two randomized trials provide no consistent evidence for nonmusical cognitive benefits of brief preschool music enrichment. PLoS ONE, 8:e82007. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082007

Mosing, M.A., Madison, G., Pedersen, N.L., & Ullen, F. (2016). Investigating cognitive transfer within the framework of music practice: Genetic pleiotropy rather than causality. Developmental Science, 19(3), 504–512.

Rickard, N. S., Bambrick, C. J., & Gill, A. (2012). Absence of widespread psychosocial and cognitive effects of school-based music instruction in 10-13-year-old students. International Journal of Music Education, 30, 57-78. doi:10.1177/0255761411431399

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). Does far transfer exist? Negative evidence from chess, music, and working memory training. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 515–520.

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). When the music's over. Does music skill transfer to children's and young adolescents' cognitive and academic skills? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 20, 55-67.

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2018). Elvis has left the building: Correlational but not causal relationship between music skill and cognitive ability. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.17808.66569. Preprint

Sala,G., Aksayli, N.D., Tatlidil, K.S., Tomoko Tatsumi, T., Gondo, Y., & Gobet, F. (2018). Near and far transfer in cognitive training: A second-order metaanalysis. Preprint.

Swaminathan, S., Schellenberg, E.G., & Khalil, S. (2017). Revisiting the association between music lessons and intelligence: Training effects or music aptitude? Intelligence, 62, 119–124.

Swaminathan, S., Schellenberg, E.G., & Venkatesan, K. (2018). Explaining the association between music training and reading in adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44(6), 992–999.

Tervaniemi, M., Tao, S., & Huotilainen, M. (2018). Promises of music in education? Frontiers of Education, 3, 74. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2018.00074

Tierney A., & Kraus, N. (2013). Music training for the development of reading skills. Progress in Brain Research, 207, 209-41.