Harvard Study Challenges ‘Mozart Effect’

“Music doesn’t make you smarter.” That is the quick conclusion headline-readers are taking from the recent six-week Harvard study by Ed.D. candidate Samuel Mehr, which purportedly “finds no cognitive benefits of music education.” However, that simplistic soundbite is not what the study (which actually measures the effects of “Brief Preschool Music Enrichment”) necessarily boils down to.

As stated in the PLoS One journal abstract of Mehr’s study: “…the effects of early music education on children’s cognitive development are unknown. … Our findings underscore the need for replication in RCTs [randomized controlled trials], and suggest caution in interpreting the positive findings from past studies of cognitive effects of music instruction.” While headlines state “music doesn’t make students smarter,” the study concludes … more studies are needed.

Mehr’s findings do not actually say anything new about the value of music education, but rather reaffirm the difficulty of showing causality in describing academic benefits. Contrary to what the negative headlines report, the jury is still out on the extrinsic value of music study.

Aside from what the Harvard study does or does not conclude, how does this bode for music education advocacy? Mehr actually has something to say about that:

From the Boston Globe:

“We don’t teach our children Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy because it makes them do better in American history class or at learning the periodic table of the elements,” said Samuel Mehr, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Education who led the work. “We teach them those great authors because those great authors are important. There’s really no reason to justify music education on any other basis than its intrinsic merits. We have our Dante, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and they are Bach, Duke Ellington, and Benjamin Britten.”

Mehr also says, “Music is an ancient, uniquely human activity. The oldest flutes that have been dug up are 40,000 years old, and human song long preceded that. Every single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach this to our children.”

Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies arts education, echoed this sentiment in the spirit of l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake). From the Globe article,

She noted that the idea that arts education must justify itself because of the benefits it will have in a math class is misguided …

“It suggests a very narrow view of what kids should be learning; it suggests kids should go to school to get a job and why should you waste time with music and art?” Winner said. “We’ve lost a sense of what it means to be an educated human being. … We have to justify the arts on their own terms, as just as important as the sciences.”

What are your thoughts on how best to approach music education advocacy? Please share your thoughts below.

Catherina Hurlburt, Special Assistant, December 12, 2013. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)