In 1993, a surprising study was published claiming that college students who listened to Mozart before taking a test did better than those who did not. This sparked the belief that mothers who played Mozart to their babies while still in the womb were doing them a great service because listening to classical music would make them smarter, despite the original researchers never suggesting such. Since the study and the following fad, the idea that art and music have a correlation to smarter students has been one of great fascination; as a result, many new studies have been published to either support or debunk the claims.

The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) out of University of California, Berkley, more recently published an article about the effects of art and music on children, specifically highlighting the efforts and opinions of experts in the field of brain research. The Dana Foundation, a private organization that provides grants and publications in the field of brain research, was one of the many groups cited by the GGSC. Experts began studies for the Dana Foundation in 2004 to find any possible effects of art and music education on children. Three years of data collecting resulted in a publication entitled Learning, Arts, and the Brain, making one fact clear: having an appreciation for art does not make a child instantly smarter, though that doesn’t mean that art and music do not have a positive influence.

One of the studies focused on children aged four through seven and their attention-focusing abilities while engaging art. They interacted with computerized programs that simulated engaging with art. It was found that the children were able to exercise their attention spans, which improved cognition.

Elizabeth Spelke, neuropsychologist at Harvard University, took on the “Mozart Effect” more literally, demonstrating through her study that students with a background in music education showed improvements in reading maps and solving select geometry problems. Another study that examined neuroimaging for the reactions of specific parts of the brain to music reported that students who tuned their ears for music were honing their ability to distinguish differences in sound. By recognizing notes and pitch they were refining their early literacy skills.

The National Endowment for the Arts published a similar article concerning the importance of visual stimulation and its positive effects on literacy in young children, furthered with suggested activities for children and parents. The article highlights the importance of introducing children to things that are visually stimulating, explaining that children begin understanding the world through visual aid. Encouraging children to engage with art widens their visual appetite, builds their personal preferences toward art and strengthens their ability to critique creative works. They also gain vocabulary by explaining what they see and asking questions when they don’t understand what they are interacting with. These critical skills help children prepare for school in all of their subjects, not just in art. The ability to critically analyze art can be translated into literary critiquing skills and the learned attention to detail would be helpful across all disciplines, but especially in classes like math and science where precise measurements are essential.

While many people who have supported keeping arts in schools have cited the “Mozart Effect” and other studies that suggest exposure to art makes students smarter, they were not completely wrong. Art and music training alone cannot make a child a genius, but the skills that they gain can certainly give them the upper hand when these skills are applied to their studies.

Did You Know?
Although the “Mozart Effect“ has long been debated, it has been shown that students involved in the arts perform better on the SATs—at least according to Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as noted in an Boston Globe article from 2007. One important part of their research, however, was to demonstrate that just because academic performance and the arts may be correlated, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. In their survey released in 2000, the findings sparked a bit of controversy. Hetland and Winner noted that students involved in the arts may be the students who would’ve gotten good grades anyway, despite their artistic involvement. They noted in their findings that studying various forms of art does not actually cause an improvement in cognitive skills in areas outside of the arts. The researchers reported that they “found inconclusive evidence that music improves mathematical learning and that dance improves spatial learning. We found no evidence that studying visual arts, dance, or music improves reading.” But despite the controversy, Americans for the Arts’ statistics showed that “students with four years of high school arts and music classes have higher SAT scores than students with one-half year or less.” In fact, the students who take art and music courses not only score better, but they score from 67 to 104 points better than their peers, depending on the year. These statistics apply to the Critical Reading and Mathematics sections only, not expanding across the Writing portion of the SAT.