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Einstein was smart, but Could He Play the Violin? – the winner of the synchroblogging contest

Today is PLoS ONE’s second anniversary and we’re celebrating by announcing that the winner of the second PLoS synchroblogging competition is SciCurious of the Neurotopia 2.0 blog.

“This fluent post captures the essence of the research and accurately communicates it in a style that resonates with both the scientific and lay community” – Liz Allen, PLoS.

Here is the winning entry, cross posted in its entirety:


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? 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…


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 wonder 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 matter 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

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