Does Music Make You Smarter?

Three smart guys — a psychologist, a neuropsychologist and a biologist — weigh in.

By Colin Eatock

Music and the brain is a hot topic. Ever since Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sachs’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain both made the New York Times’ best-seller list in 2007, interest has exploded.

So are some people really “musically smarter” than others? (And did all those piano lessons help?) Nearly all the experts agree that studying music makes you smarter — at music. But beyond that, itgets complicated. And it’s a tricky topic to even talk about: none of the experts I spoke to were comfortable with the term “musical intelligence,” saying that it’s just too vague. They were more willing to discuss musical aptitude and musical cognition.

Musical aptitude, or the ability to learn music, is something that almost everyone seems to possess but isn’t necessarily equally distributed: think of child prodigies, and the inequity becomes very much apparent.

Aniruddh Patel, a biologist at San Diego’s Neurosciences Institute, points out that this may be a luck-of-the draw thing. “There’s actually a debate about whether musical aptitude is inborn or whether it’s a product of some early experience,” he says. “But it’s pretty clear that people vary in their aptitude for music.”

As for musical cognition, or the ability to understand music, that’s a different matter. A French researcher, Emanuel Bigand, recently stated that most people have about the same level of musical cognition, whether or not they have musical training. Educated musicians may have a more conscious understanding of how music works (and a vocabulary to talk about it), but the uneducated still have an intuitive understanding of music.

However, at Montreal’s McGill University, neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre has a test that suggests a noticeable difference in musical cognition between musicians and non-musicians. “We play a tune in one key,” he explains, “and then repeat it at a different key, and ask if it’s the same or if a note has been changed. What we find is that people with musical training are inclined to do better. If you study people who don’t have training, you’ll find some people who are just as good as the musicians, but others who are just awful at it.”

Another thing: you can pretty much forget about the “Mozart Effect.” The 1990s fad that had people playing excerpts from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to their newborns was founded on some pretty flimsy scientific evidence. The initial study was done on undergrads at UC Irvine. One group listened to Mozart and the other didn’t. Then they all took IQ tests, and the Mozart group scored slightly higher.

But according to Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, just about any kind of mental stimulation before taking an IQ test will generate better results. “Music changes how you feel, and how you feel changes your cognitive ability,” he points out. “This was wildly extrapolated to the notion that listening to Mozart in childhood might lead to cognitive benefits. The link is tenuous at best.”

But Schellenberg holds that music lessons may produce the solid results that passive listening doesn’t. He claims there are “small but general and long-lasting cognitive benefits” that can come from learning to play an instrument. So can music make you smarter? Maybe — but like the answer to “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?,” it’s all about practice.

Of course some practicing musicians have long felt that they’re a breed apart — different from “normal” people in some fundamental way. And now there’s proof: scientists have observed that musicians’ brains tend to be a little different in certain, specific ways.

“If you look at the overall brain structure of highly musically trained people,” says Patel, “you’ll see differences in the amount of gray matter in regions that have to do with music processing, like auditory processing or, for instrumentalists, hand-motor control.”

Zattore agrees. “It’s very clear from a number of experiments that if you do musical training, you find changes in brain structures attributable to that training. There are experiments that show that changes are greater if you begin musical training by about the age of seven. They’re still there if you begin later, but smaller in magnitude.”

Here we run up against a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. Has studying music caused these changes in musicians’ brains, or do people who are born with musically adept brains tend to become musicians? One thing’s for sure: having certain favorable brain attributes doesn’t necessarily make you a good musician. “If you have a particularly well-developed auditory cortex it doesn’t mean you’ll be a great musician,” says Zattore, “because there are so many other factors. If you’re incredibly clumsy and you pick up a cello, you’ll have a lot of trouble.”

We tend to enjoy the things we’re good at and be good at the things we enjoy. But as listeners, why do humans enjoy music? It’s largely because of the chemical dopamine, a neurotransmitter generated by the brain and closely associated with pleasure — or “reward,” as the scientists like to say. It’s because of the dopamine released in our brains that we enjoy things like sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — or pretty much any other kind of music.