Does Music Positively Impact Cognition?

By: Ashwin Mills ’18

Music is known as the universal language, breaking down communication barriers for generations. Which begs the question: Does the study of music benefit society in any other ways?

A study conducted in 2012 by the University of Toronto showed that the study of music theory not only benefited communication between foreign cultures, but also benefited cognition.

Studies conducted in the mid 1990’s set out to prove that classical music instruction and study of musical history had a positive effect on academic achievement. The results of the study, however, were mixed. A more recent study tested the effects of music and art on children aged 4-6.

Dr. Sylvain Moreno designed the program, splitting the 48 test subjects into two groups of 24. One group took the computer-based course for the study of music, the other for theory of art. Each course used the same cartoon characters, graphics, and tone. However, the music program taught about rhythm, pitch, melody, singing, and basic music theory, while the art program taught about line, color, shape, dimension, and perspective.

Before and after completing the programs, each child took an oral vocabulary and puzzle design test to measure their respective IQ’s. After 20 days of taking their respective courses, the results revealed that 90% of the subjects who took the music program had improved their verbal scores by as much as 14 points and showed increased activity in the frontoparietal networks of the brain (the part that focuses on attention). Contrary to this improvement, those who took the art course showed little to no verbal or spatial improvement.

Moreno described the significance of the tests’ results: “The brain behavior changed after the musical training. And what we found was that the change in intelligence correlated with the change in the brain. The more the music training induced changes in the brain, the more the children improved their intelligence scores.”

Notre Dame students weighed in on the subject when asked: “Do you think that learning about music benefits cognition?” and “Do you think learning about visual art benefits cognition.”

Out of fifteen students polled, eleven believed music to benefit cognition, three were undecided, and only one said no. On the other hand, when it came to art, fourteen people said yes, while one said no.

Ruth Underwood, former keyboardist for legendary 70’s musician, Frank Zappa, also commented on the survey, ecstatically proclaiming “the most intelligent people in the world played and understood music…Einstein played violin, Edison played piano, and even Louis Braille was a musician!”

When asked about the differences between music and art, Underwood said, “The way I see it, music is on a different level in terms of comprehension…all music is art, but not all art is music.”

While the results of Moreno’s test were impressive, it is yet to be seen how this knowledge can be put to further use.


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