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Does Music Make You Smarter?

Playbill has partnered with the award-winning music magazine

Music and the brain is a hot topic. Ever since Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sachs’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain both made the New York Times’ best-seller list in 2007, interest has exploded.

So are some people really “musically smarter” than others? (And did all those piano lessons help?) Nearly all the experts agree that studying music makes you smarter—at music. But beyond that, it gets complicated. And it’s a tricky topic to even talk about: none of the experts I spoke to were comfortable with the term “musical intelligence,” saying that it’s just too vague. They were more willing to discuss musical aptitude and musical cognition.

Musical aptitude, or the ability to learn music, is something that almost everyone seems to possess but isn’t necessarily equally distributed: think of child prodigies, and the inequity becomes very much apparent.

Aniruddh Patel, a biologist at San Diego’s Neurosciences Institute, points out that this may be a luck-of-the draw thing. “There’s actually a debate about whether musical aptitude is inborn or whether it’s a product of some early experience,” he says. “But it’s pretty clear that people vary in their aptitude for music.”

As for musical cognition, or the ability to understand music, that’s a different matter. A French researcher, Emanuel Bigand, recently stated that most people have about the same level of musical cognition, whether or not they have musical training. Educated musicians may have a more conscious understanding of how music works (and a vocabulary to talk about it), but the uneducated still have an intuitive understanding of music.

However, at Montreal’s McGill University, neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre has a test that suggests a noticeable difference in musical cognition between musicians and non-musicians. “We play a tune in one

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