Does music make people smart?

I take a personal interest in the on-going debate on the data showing that musicians tend to have higher than the median IQs.

The answer is, not always

After all, I’ve spent much of my life in the company of musicians, having had the chance to observe dozens of them at close quarters. And true enough, some of them are highly intelligent. (By way of protecting my social and family life, I hasten to state unreservedly and unequivocally that both my wife and one of my closest friends fall into that category.)

However, most musicians I’ve known, including some famous ones, don’t strike me as intellectual giants. And some of those who can get around keys or strings at supersonic speeds, and command stratospheric fees, are simply daft.

Then, as any logician will tell you, correlation doesn’t equate causality. Music may not necessarily make people smarter, but those with high IQs are more likely to gravitate towards the concert platform.

Moreover, those who do make it to the concert platform typically start to prepare for that feat at a time when they haven’t quite learned to talk yet, much less make choices about their career plans. They were led to music by their parents, which at that stage says more about the parents than the offspring.

No such grown-ups can possibly have a pecuniary interest in encouraging their tots to study music seriously. After all, it takes years of lessons to decide whether a child has a professional potential, and more years to judge whether that potential is likely to be realised.

Hence it’s mainly for cultural reasons that parents spend oodles of time, effort and money to guide their children to Bach and Beethoven. They must love music, understand how vital it is to our culture and therefore believe that exposure to music will make their children better people – even if it doesn’t make them international stars.

It’s likely that parents who accept much personal sacrifice to pursue that educational goal are themselves intelligent people. And intelligent people are more likely to spawn clever children.

Also, an intelligence quotient measures not intelligence, but merely the potential for developing it. IQ relates to intelligence the way musicality relates to musicianship – musical people may never become musicians, and people with high IQs may never become thinkers.

For example, everybody considered Bobby Fischer one of the best chess players ever, but nobody – including probably even his mother – considered him an intelligent man. Yet his IQ was off every known scale. (Incidentally, many chess players are musicians and vice versa. The two skills are related: chess players develop the cognitive skills to arrange elements in space; musicians, to arrange them in time.)

This is yet another example of how deceptive statistics can be. An unvarnished datum may be a matter of interest, but it seldom elucidates an issue in all its complexity. That, however, doesn’t make statistics useless. They just need to be treated with caution.

In this case, the link between music and intelligence can’t be dismissed just because statistics don’t paint the full picture. For, combining logic with personal observation, I’m convinced that music makes some people more intelligent.

For example, it’s certain that musicians of the calibre of, say, Gieseking, Menuhin, Gould, Szigeti, Yudina or Grumiaux (and of course the two individuals mentioned in the second paragraph above) had their innate intelligence further developed by music.

The abundance of musicians who acquire the biomechanical skills necessary for virtuoso performance suggests that such talents are spread rather wide. However, great musicians are few because they go beyond that. They combine virtuosity with a deep analytical ability and a broad cultural outlook.

A great musician has to have the intricate mind to analyse the complex relationships of harmonies, tempi, sonorities and dynamics within a piece – and also to understand how the piece fits into the overall work of its composer, how the composer relates to the music of his time and over history, and how music expresses the ethos of our civilisation.

A mindless virtuoso can have a brilliant career without such intelligence. But he’ll never reach the level of the musicians I mentioned above, at random.

For all those Genome Projects and Decades of the Brain, the human mind remains a mystery, unsolved and probably unsolvable. Scientists don’t even know what a thought is, which is understandable. Natural sciences deal with the natural, which is to say material, world. And thought lives in another world, one that materialists stupidly insist doesn’t exist.

That’s why the questions similar to those I’ve touched upon will never be answered definitively. Not in a lab, not by a sociological survey – and, much as I hate to admit this, not even by me.

One thing is beyond doubt, to me at any rate: music too resides in that other world. And, if I can be forgiven wild conjecture, it may well live on a higher floor than even the rational mind.

1 thought on “Does music make people smart?”

  1. ‘The Sense of Being Stared At’’, a book by Rupert Sheldrake, is about a phenomenon most of us have had experience of.

    This well-attested phenomenon alone is enough to scotch the idea that the material is all there is.

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