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WEDNESDAY, Dec. 11, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- If Johnny doesn't take to the violin, don't fret. A new study challenges the widely held belief that music lessons can help boost children's intelligence.
"More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children's grades or intelligence," study author Samuel Mehr, a graduate student in the School of Education at Harvard University, said in a university news release.
"Even in the scientific community, there's a general belief that music is important for these extrinsic reasons -- but there is very little evidence supporting the idea that music classes enhance children's [mental] development," he noted.
In this study, Mehr and his colleagues randomly assigned 4-year-old children to receive instruction in either music or visual arts.
"We wanted to test the effects of the type of music education that actually happens in the real world, and we wanted to study the effect in young children, so we implemented a parent-child music enrichment program with preschoolers," Mehr explained. "The goal is to encourage musical play between parents and children in a classroom environment, which gives parents a strong repertoire of musical activities they can continue to use at home with their kids."
Both groups of children later underwent vocabulary, math and spatial skills tests. There was no evidence that the 15 children in the music group had any intellectual advantage over the 14 in the visual arts group.
The researchers then conducted a second experiment that included 45 children, with half receiving music training and half receiving no training. Again, the researchers found that music lessons did not provide any brain benefit, according to the study published Dec. 11 in the journal PLoS One.
While the findings suggest that music lessons won't improve a child's school grades, music education is still important, according to Mehr.
"There's a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits. We don't teach kids Shakespeare because we think it will help them do better on the SATs, we do it because we believe Shakespeare is important," he said.
"Music is an ancient, uniquely human activity -- the oldest flutes that have been dug up are 40,000 years old, and human song long preceded that," Mehr noted. "Every single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach this to our children."
The American Music Therapy Association outlines the benefits of music therapy.