In Brief

Music lessons may offer children intellectual benefits and fine-tune their sensitivity to emotion in speech, according to research by two University of Toronto psychologists presented at APA's 2003 Annual Convention.

In one of the reported studies--in press at Psychological Science--E. Glenn Schellenberg, PhD, recruited 144 6-year-olds to take free weekly arts lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto for one year. He randomly assigned children to either keyboard or voice lessons--the experimental groups--or drama lessons or no lessons--the control groups. The drama lessons served to control for increases in IQ that could result from participation in any extracurricular activity, said Schellenberg.

He tested children's IQ before and after the year of lessons, and found that while IQs increased across the board by about 4.5 points because of attending a year of school, scores for the children in the music groups increased an additional 2.5 points.

That's a small, but significant, connection, he noted. He suggested that the periods of focused attention, memorization and concentration associated with the lessons and practice may explain the increase.

"We also know that schooling raises IQ, and it may be that music training is enough of a school-like activity to do the same," he explained.

When the children took the post-lessons IQ test, a subset of them also participated in a study--in press at Emotion--led by Bill Thompson, PhD, to test whether music lessons promote sensitivity to speech prosody, which is the musical aspects of speech used to convey emotions. Thompson and his collaborators, Schellenberg and graduate student Gabriela Husain, presented children with eight happy and sad sentences in random order, once in English and once in Tagalog--a Filipino language foreign to all participants.

Children identified whether the speaker sounded happy or sad by pressing a button directly below a corresponding picture, then repeated the process with a set of fearful and angry sentences. Next, the children heard computer-generated tone sequences and, for each, judged whether the computer was happy or sad in one phase, and scared or angry in another.

The researchers had expected high scores from the drama lessons group--given that using the voice to convey emotion is central to drama--and they were right. But they were surprised to find that children who took keyboard lessons scored just as high, and significantly better than the children who took voice or no lessons. What's more, the researchers found similar results in additional studies with adults who had taken music lessons as children.

Thompson posited that the results may reveal a form of cognitive transfer--that perhaps the same area of the brain processes both speech prosody and music, and that "training in one domain would act to engage and refine those neural resources." He plans to further explore the association and possibly test whether music training has implications for foreign language acquisition.

--J. CHAMBERLIN