Another “Which Came First- The Chicken or the Egg?”

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We’ve all heard this before- People who learn to play an instrument and maintain in practice are smarter and possess sharper a memory throughout their schooling and career. Maybe not everyone has heard this, but most parents, adult students, professional athletes, and intellectuals have encountered, if not sought after, this statement. At least admit you’ve seen it on Pinterest or Huffington Post during your facebook meanderings. Teachers, doctors and historians have studied musicians and intellectuals alike, ad nauseam, and have proven it to be true with results that cannot be classified as coincidental or biased.
According to American psychologist Catherine Cox Miles’ article, 301 Historical Geniuses, Beethoven had a higher IQ than Einstein. Mozart had a higher IQ than Benjamin Franklin. Believe it or not, Voltaire had a higher IQ than Shakira, but I digress, and worry about the credibility of my reference, as it included Shakira on its list of three hundred historical geniuses…
So, which came first- the chicken or the egg? Does this mean that people are smarter BECAUSE they took music lessons, or that people who can play an instrument and stick with it can do so because they are ALREADY smarter in the first place?
In several recent studies of four and five year old children, those that took piano lessons for six months to one year improved their ability to work increasingly challenging puzzles and spatial testing games by 30% more, on average, than the students who did not participate in weekly music lessons and daily practice.
“Music involves grasping patterns, and the non-verbal reasoning task involves grasping patterns,” says psychologist Ellen Winner. “You have to pay attention to the pattern of sounds, and you also have to pay attention to the pattern of the notes when you’re looking at music notation.”
As fun as it may be to put preschoolers to the test (sarcasm should be noted there), you should know that the effects seem to hold true through the course of a lifetime. Other studies on retired communities show better visual memory and visual input performance in folks that actively played an instrument for ten years or more, compared to those who did not.
So back to my original question: did the music MAKE them smarter, or are the people with natural affinity for playing instruments just more intellectual in the first place?
The only way to get straight answers is to do a study on babies, and if you’ve ever known a baby, you’d know that he probably would not the best test subject- ever moody and inconsistent, always sleepy or grumpy or hungry. Heck, he won’t even talk to you, and usually, isn’t even cognizant that the world continues past the end of his nose.
Parents and doctors alike will agree though, that it is of the utmost importance to activate babies’ senses as soon as possible. Even the single, care-free working person who has never even SEEN a baby can agree that the person you become, and the brain synapses you’ve created are all result of what you’ve individually experienced in life. It is never too late to create new experiences, and to broaden your sensory palate. If you do so with something as beautiful and intricate and incomparable as learning to play and understand classical music, you’re bound to expand the complexity of the memory paths in your brain.
If you’ve been pondering whether or not to start some sort of classical music training, this should be all you need to know. With increasing disease and 1,563,486 new disorders being created and diagnosed daily, why not up your chances of beating the odds? When I am 83, I hope my grandkids say more often “She is one sharp cookie!” rather than “Just mix her pills in her jello cup– that old loon won’t know the difference.”
Think about it. Not only will you be the life of the party, but practice time will finally give you a reason to tear yourself away from Pinterest and the Huffington Post. To top it off, because you’re getting smarter and are creating a more highly developed spatial skill set, you’ll also be able to replicate those once-impossible Pinterest projects, making all of your DIY dreams a reality. This is win-win, folks.

Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., Levine, L. J., Wright, E. L., Dennis, W. R., & Newcomb, R. L. (1997). Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning. Neurological Research, 19, 2-8.

The Relation between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging

Publication Journal: Neuropsychology, April 2011

By Brenda Hanna-Pladdy; Alicia MacKay

From the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas


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