General Intelligence Predicts Musical Skill Acquisition

Intelligence could play a role in learning music, according to a Michigan State University study that investigated the early stages of learning to play the piano[1]. The study may be the first to examine the relationship between intelligence, music aptitude, and growth mindset in beginner pianists.

A growth mindset refers to whether students believe they can improve necessary abilities, like piano ability.

“The strongest predictor of skill acquisition was intelligence, followed by music aptitude. By contrast, the correlation between growth mindset and piano performance was about as close to zero as possible,”

said Alexander Burgoyne, a doctoral candidate in cognition and cognitive neuroscience.

Skill Acquisition Trajectories

In the study, 161 undergraduates learned how to play “Happy Birthday” on the piano with the help of a video guide. After practice, the students performed the 25-note song multiple times.

Three MSU graduate students judged the performances based on their melodic and rhythmic accuracy. There were striking differences in the students’ skill acquisition trajectories.

Some learned quickly, earning perfect marks within six minutes of practice. Others performed poorly at first but improved substantially later.

By comparison, some seemed to fade as if they had lost their motivation, and others never figured it out, performing poorly throughout the study.

So why did some students fail while others succeeded?

Mindsets

To find out, the researchers gave the students tests of cognitive ability that measured things like problem-solving skills and processing speed, and tests of music aptitude that measured, for example, the ability to differentiate between similar rhythms. They also surveyed their growth mindset.

“The results were surprising because people have claimed that mindset plays an important role when students are confronted with challenges, like trying to learn a new musical instrument. And yet, it didn’t predict skill acquisition,”

Burgoyne said.

That said, results will likely differ for those with more skill.

“Our study examined one of the earliest stages of skill acquisition. Early experiences can be formative, but I would caution against drawing conclusions about skilled musicians based on our study of beginners,”

said Burgoyne.  The study’s findings may be helpful in education.

It follows a recent review of mindset research that found a weak relationship between a growth mindset and academic achievement. Perhaps more concerning, that study found interventions designed to boost performance by encouraging children to believe they can improve their necessary abilities may be fruitless.

That is, when those interventions successfully altered students’ mindsets, there wasn’t a significant effect on academic achievement.

[1] Alexander P. Burgoyne, Lauren Julius Harris, David Z. Hambrick. Predicting piano skill acquisition in beginners: The role of general intelligence, music aptitude, and mindset. Intelligence; Volume 76, September–October 2019, 101383