Does Music Have Cognitive "Spin-offs"?

Weinberger, N.M., Does Music Have Cognitive "Spin-offs"?,
MuSICA Research Notes, 1994, Volume I, Issue 2, Fall 1994.

Reproduced with permission.
Dr. Norman M. Weinberger and the Regents of the University of California

Many reasons have been advanced for providing music education to children. In a highly interesting survey of this topic, Draper and Gayle (1987) provided a list obtained from 108 textbooks of music education published between 1887 and 1982 (1). While it would be of interest to have an update from 1982 to the present, this is not critical to the major point, that music is thought to have substantial non-musical educational benefits.

The reasons advanced for music education in children are:

  • Self-expression and creative pleasure
  • Develops an aesthetic sense
  • Motor and rhythmic development
  • Promotes cultural heritage
  • Promotes vocal and language development
  • Promotes cognitive development and abstract thought
  • Teaches social and group skills
There are three important points. First, note that the reasons can be divided into two categories: (a) within music and the arts (self expression/creative pleasure and aesthetic sense) vs. (b) extramusical (the last five on the list). Second, as these reasons have been advanced since at least 1887, the idea that music has benefits for children that extend beyond music and the arts themselves is an idea of very long standing. Third, Draper and Gayle found some significant differences in the emphasis placed on these reasons over the years and also some constancies.

There was no change in the percent of books that listed self-expression and motor development. These reasons were found in 65-70% of all texts over the almost 100 years surveyed. In contrast, the emphasis on all of the other reasons changed. Summarized simply, there was a plunge in "develops an aesthetic sense" and increases in the other four reasons, i.e., "cultural heritage", "vocal/language development", "cognitive development/abstract thought" and "social/group skills".

This pattern of changes suggests that shifts in emphasis reflect changes in societal values, probably based on many factors including increased learning about and awareness of factors that influence educational achievement and social adjustment. In fact, it is reassuring that new knowledge influences and informs the reasons for promoting music education. For example, Draper and Gayle point out that an increase in emphasis on the benefits of music for language and vocal development during the period of 1964-1972 coincides with "...the attempt to erase socioeconomic differences with early intervention." That attitudes about music education change with societal evolution is not in itself particularly surprising. But the detailed nature of the changes has implications for potential improvements in general education , particularly if they are based on empirical studies and scientific evidence.

As 100 years is a very long time over which to appreciate changes in attitudes and beliefs and apply them to modern times, let us look more closely at the shifts of emphasis in music education for children. If one examines the results of the survey as broken down by Draper and Gayle for the three most recent periods covered, 1964-1972, 1973-1978 and 1979-1982, the overall picture changes markedly. The four reasons that received increased emphasis over 100 years have not all simply increased continually in modern times. "Language development" actually decreased substantially, "cultural heritage fluctuated and "social skills" increased considerably to 1973-1978 and then held steady. The only rationale that increased continually and greatly over this modern period was "promotes cognitive development and abstract thought."

We may ask, then, about the extent to which changes in emphasis over the years reflect scientific findings about, e.g., the extramusical benefits of music education. Although this is a simple question, its answer is necessarily complex. Tracking down the bases for attitudes about music education over time would require years of research and volumes for analysis and presentation. A more manageable question of considerable interest deals not with the bases for changes in emphasis but more simply with whether or not there is any objective evidence that music education has extramusical benefits. (see "Music and Cognitive Achievment in Children"-this issue.)

In considering this question, a distinction needs to be made between "correlation" and "causality". Correlation simply refers to a non-random relationship between two things; they "go together" but one does not necessarily cause the other. In short, one can't legitimately infer causes from correlations. A causal relationship also consists of some systematic relationship between two items, events, etc. However causality also requires that there be a link in time between the two related things, that is, the alleged cause precedes its alleged effect. Moreover, if the hypothesized cause is provided, then the hypothesized result should occur. Thus, while correlations between music and extramusical cognitive benefits are of great interest, by themselves they yield little insight into causality, although they may lead to new and important lines of inquiry, ultimately including questions of causality.

In summary, a full understanding of the roles of music in life should include knowledge of all of the effects of music exposure and music education. This includes effects that are largely restricted to music and the arts and also to other aspects of the human intellect and behavior. By taking a systematic and rigorous scientific approach to these issues, it should be possible to achieve this full understanding.

(1) Draper, T.W. & Gayle,C. (1987) An Analysis of historical reasons for teaching music to young children: Is it the same old song? In: J.C. Peery, I.W. Peery & T.W. Draper (Eds.) Music and Child Development,New York: Springer-Verlag, pp. 194-205.