Frank Zappa

Musical Genius, or Just Regular Genius?

Many believe that taking music lessons will make you smarter. As it turns out, the causal link may actually run in the other direction.


It’s an idea that’s understandably popular with musicians themselves: studying music makes you smarter.

Articles and studies abound on the topic, suggesting that one can strum, bash, or bow one’s way to better problem-solving and multitasking skills, but University of Toronto researchers took a different perspective. What if we’ve been wrongly interpreting the causation and correlation all this time?

Their study looked at whether the duration of musical training is connected to improvements in nonverbal intelligence, and if so, could that be explained by musical aptitude?

As it turns out, there is a correlation between musical aptitude and higher intelligence, but musical training is not the cause of it. Pre-existing intelligence has a far bigger role in musical aptitude than years of formal training, beneficial though they may be.

Talented, high-functioning individuals are far more likely to pursue music lessons in the first place, so they are simply expanding upon the raw talent and ability they already possess.

Is there a connection between one’s background and one’s abilities?

For the test population in this study, 133 undergraduate psychology students were selected, some with musical training, some without. Those who received formal training had typically experienced over five years of lessons, in either private or school-based settings.

Subjects were asked to detail their socioeconomic status, including their parents’ income and level of education. Following this, they were examined for their musical aptitude with tests for pitch and rhythm, and also for nonverbal intelligence.

The results were as expected on one level and novel on another. Just like previous research, there was an association between nonverbal intelligence and length of musical training. But once the researchers controlled for musical aptitude, the link between training and intelligence disappeared.

The correlation between aptitude and intelligence was found to be independent of socioeconomic status and lessons. There wasn’t any evidence to suggest that training even mediated or moderated the link between musical aptitude and intelligence.

How could this be so?

“You had brains all along, Scarecrow!”

In differential psychology, there are lots of studies that show that subjects who perform well on one psychometric exam tend to do well on others, including music. This general intelligence spills over into many outlets, making one adept at succeeding in other areas of life.

This higher ability to function in all sorts of contexts increases the likelihood of taking lessons. The direction of causation is opposite, therefore: a strong aptitude for music is an extension of a higher general intelligence, and this combination of natural talent and brains increases the likelihood of taking music lessons.

These findings are consistent with research that shows that good grades increase the chances of taking music courses down the line.

Granted, greater participation in lessons and musical activities will amplify aptitude, and to a lesser extent, intelligence. But this is all relatively minor in the bigger picture; genetic inheritance and environmental factors play a much bigger role.

For the proud musicians reading this, fear not: there’s no blow to the ego – your abilities are merely an extension of your intellectual prowess. Jam out your genius.

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.