According to a study in the journal Psychological Science, the answer to the question above is yes. The young participants in the study were first given the full Weschler intelligence test, which assesses aspects of intellectual function in ten separate areas. At the end of the study, they retook the test. The result? The scores of kids who took piano lessons weekly for just nine months displayed a small though significant increase compared to their non-musical peers.
The results support the theory that piano lessons exercise much more than little fingers – learning the piano challenges multiple areas of the brain, including areas responsible for motor skills, mathematical reasoning, and spatial intelligence.
The authors of the study conclude that music lessons should ideally be available to kids as a normal part of their education.
Science has shown that the challenges of learning the piano cause players’ brains to develop unique capacities. And I’ll guarantee that anyone who has ever tried to simultaneously and correctly play two different melodies, one with the left hand and one with the right, using different combinations of fingers at different times in different rhythms, is unlikely to disagree. Let’s not even talk about four-part Bach fugues, in which the pianist’s hands are responsible for playing four distinct melodies simultaneously. These new and powerful abilities are engraved even more strongly onto younger, still-developing brains.
Obvious, and not-so-obvious, benefits of learning to play the piano include:
- Greater task focus. The focus and discipline required for practicing and playing the piano (and other instruments too) is likely one reason that college music majors – many of whom enter college having studied music for a decade or more – seem to be more intellectually and academically advanced as a group compared to most other college majors, and have better study skills.
- Improved aural discrimination. For sure, musical ear skills are likely to improve with the study of any instrument, especially voice (which is one reason why lessons at the Portland Piano Lab often include some singing). Due to the complexity of piano music, though, pianists may be able to “tune” their ears better than most instrumentalists.
- Ability to multitask. The ability to “multitask” may be overrated, as it seems to be well-correlated with stress, at least in my experience. Nevertheless, multitasking does come in handy in our increasingly-complex world. The exercise of motor, visual and/or aural areas of the brain simultaneously while playing piano goes a long way in the development of this ability.
- Improvement in fine motor skills. It’s been said that there is no human activity more complex than playing the piano. Well, except for the organ, which brings the feet into the picture too – though fortunately not the toes!
- Improved memorization skills. Memorization is an important skill that is underemphasized in America’s schools and, in my understanding, overemphasized in other countries, particularly in Asia, where students often learn by rote. Nevertheless, the ability to memorize is useful throughout one’s life, and practicing the four types of musical memory (aural, muscle, analytical and visual) is sure to aid the kind of memorizing required for school exams, language acquisition, and more.
- Ability to express emotion. The ability to express emotion musically and kinesthetically (and verbally if you also sing) can be greatly strengthened by learning the piano. Sadly, the abilities to be in touch with one’s own feelings and express emotion in a healthy way are, sadly, something that many children lose touch with as they grow up. Music keeps us in touch with our emotions, and by extension, our humanity.
So, does learning to play piano make kids smarter? Almost certainly, and in many ways. While your child may not rise to the intellectual level of the man in the picture (though they may eventually play better than him – Einstein’s main instrument was the violin), every little bit helps.
Keep in mind, though, that wanting your child to play only because it will make him or her a better or smarter person is not a very good reason. Children should possess a natural love of music (which can be nurtured first by parents and later by music teachers). No one should learn to play the piano for anything but the love of music and the desire to express themselves. If there happen to be beneficial side effects like “getting smarter,” well, so much the better.