Music for Life – 15 Ways Music Benefits Intellectual Health

Updated: Mar 6, 2019



In the last "Music for Life" post, we learned about how music benefits us physically. Now, let's explore how learning music is good for our intellectual development. Music is beneficial to our brains. In fact, music is hardwired into us. Research shows that babies cry to the sound of common musical intervals. The sing-song chants of young children are often a series of minor-thirds. (Think "Rain, Rain, Go Away.") In the case of stroke victims, music aids recovery of verbal skills. There was a time when music as medicine might seem to be a spurious claim; however, today's research shows that this to a very real-world phenomenon. The benefits of music learning on the intellectual development of children and teens and the intellectual abilities of elderly adults with dementia are widely studied and are accepted scientific facts today.

While there have been some over-exaggerated claims made about the positive effects of music and learning. For example, the so-called "Mozart Effect" is not be as profound as it was original reported to be. The "Mozart Effect" was the claim that listening to Mozart’s music makes people smarter, and subsequently, lead to the creation of “Baby Einstein” audio and video recordings that claimed to increase a child’s IQ by exposing babies to Classical music. While the effects of listening to Mozart specifically was found to be exaggerated, exposure to music in general has been shown to increase a person’s spatial-temporal abilities. The actual benefit comes from “enjoyment arousal,” meaning people perform better when they are enjoying themselves. Music boosts mood, which in turn, boosts academic performance. So, listening to any type of music that a person enjoys has a positive effect, regardless of genre or style.

When we listen to music, our brains become active in many different regions simultaneously. (The TED video below shows how the brain processes music.) Music activates the auditory, limbic, and motor areas of our brain, as well as the regions of the brain which are used for self-reference and aesthetic judgement. If the music contains lyrics, we also use the part of our brain that processes language.


While enjoying music has a definite intellectual benefit, creating and playing music has even greater results. Researchers at Northwestern University have shown that to reap the most rewards from music, students need to be actively create music themselves. Playing in instrument in music class leads to better neural processing. Biological changes occur in students who make music that don’t occur in those who simply listen. In fact, musicians have more robust brain stems than non-musicians. In another study, professional keyboardists were found to have twice the grey matter volume than amateur keyboardists. Music doesn’t just influence our actions, it shapes our brains, and in turn, our improves ability to think.

“We like to say that ‘making music matters’ because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.” - Nina Kraus, Audio Neuroscience Laboratory of Northwestern University


15 Ways that Music Education Stimulates Intellectual Development

1. Improved academic skills – Research shows that music students perform better on mathematical, reading, and spelling tests than non-music students. Music students have higher IQ scores and better grade performance than non-music students. In fact, IQ raises 1/6 of a point for each month of music student. That means that a student who studies music for six years will have an IQ of 7.5 points higher than a similar performing student without musical instruction. The results have been found to be even more dramatic for young students. In one study, groups of six-year old students were divided into three groups, one who were given music lessons, one who was given drama, and one that was given neither. Over the course of the school year, the music students tested on average three IQ points higher than the other groups.

2. Music study develops language and reasoning skills - Students who have early musical training develop the areas of the brain related to language and reasoning. The logical and creative parts of the brain are better developed with music, and songs can help impart information for better recall.

3. Improved social abilities – Performance in music encouraging working together and cooperative learning. Students performing in an ensemble learn how to play off each other and that every person in the group’s individual success is crucial to the success of the group’s goals.

4. Increased memorization abilities - Even when performing with sheet music, musicians are constantly using their visual, auditory, and kinetic memory to perform.

5. Strive for excellence - Learning music teaches students to value doing their best. Music students learn to want to create good work, instead of mediocre work which translates to other areas outside of music.

6. Better motor coordination - Music students, including instrumentalists and singers, develop better motor skills. After all, movement and music are intrinsically linked in our brains.

7. Learning healthy goal-setting - Learning music encourages students to set, work toward, and achieve reasonable goals.

8. More educational engagment - Student musicians are more likely to stay in school.

9. Better pattern repetition skills - Music is built based on patterns. Music students develop their mathematical and pattern-recognition skills.

10. Music encourages creative thinking - Introducing music in the childhood encourages a positive attitude toward learning and curiosity. Music develops a child’s imagination. Creative thinking leads to better problem solving in all areas, which extends into adulthood.

11. Music develops spatial intelligence - Students who study music show more developed spatial intelligence, which allows them to perceive the world accurately and create mental pictures. Spatial intelligence is important for advanced mathematics, working with computers, engineering, architecture, and more.

12. Increased self-confidence - With encouragement from caring teachers and parents, music students build healthy pride and confidence. Working towards performance goals leads to higher self-esteem.

13. Better attention span – Music students develop the ability to pay attention. For example, musicians do better at being able to follow a conversation is a noisy room full of conversing people.

14. Better in the moment decision-making - A musician must make many decisions in the moment when performing.

15. Increased communication abilities – Music provides a healthy outlet to express our emotions. (More on the emotional health benefits of music study in the next Music for Life post.)

While music study has proven intellectual benefits for children (and adults), the most important reasons to study music, as well as the most important results of music study is the joy it brings. Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine explains it well. “It’s important not to oversell how smart music can make you. Music makes your kid interesting and happy, and smart will come later. It enriches his or her appetite for things that bring you pleasure and for the friends you meet.” Music increases happiness, which leads to better performance in all areas of life.

Further Reading:

20 Important Benefits of Music in Schools. National Association for Music Education. https://nafme.org/20-important-benefits-of-music-in-our-schools, accessed 03/03/18.

Brown, Laura Lewis. “The Benefits of Music Education.” PBSParents. http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/music-arts/the-benefits-of-music-education, accessed 03/03/2018.

DeWar, Gwen, Ph.D., “Music and Intelligence: A Parent’s Evidence-Based Guide."

https://www.parentingscience.com/music-and-intelligence.html, accessed 03/03/18.

Iverson, Dr. John, "Auditory Perception: Music, Rhythm, and Movement." http://johniversen.org/publications, accessed 03/03/18.

Locker, Melissa, “This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain.” Time, http://time.com/3634995/study-kids-engaged-music-class-for-benefits-northwestern, accessed 03/03/18.

Moore, Kimberly Sena, Ph.D., "The Mozart Effect Doesn't Work ... but here are some things that do.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-musical-self/201005/the-mozart-effect-doesnt-work, accessed 03/03/18.

Munsey, C., “Music lessons may boost IQ and grades.” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 98, No. 2. http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun06/iq.aspx, accessed 03/03/18.

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