How Music Could Make You a Rocket Scientist

PHOTO: Studies link early exposure to the arts to later success in science.

There is a very strong correlation between childhood engagement in the creative arts and measurable success later in life, researchers at Michigan State University have found.

Although a number of scientists have demonstrated that exposure to music and art during early life enhances the development of the brain, it has been difficult to measure how that has affected their adult performance.

The MSU research team thinks they found one way to do that. Children exposed to a wide variety of arts and crafts were more likely to eventually invent something so unique that they earned a patent, or come up with an idea good enough to form a new company, or publish provocative papers on science and technology.

That led them to conclude that cutbacks by the educational system on creative subjects -- whether it be music, art or woodworking -- may deprive the nation of the kind of innovation it will need to remain at the top of the global heap.

"We conclude, therefore, that a very strong case can be made that arts and crafts training correlates significantly with success as a scientist or an engineer and that this success can be measured in economically valuable products such as patentable inventions and founding new companies," the researchers conclude in their study, published in the journal Economic Development Quarterly.

The researchers also found that the converse is equally likely to be true. Depriving a child of a chance to be creative will probably lead to a less productive life later on.

Among the participants in their study, those who held the most patents, or started the most successful companies, received up to eight times more exposure to the arts than children in the general public.

"The most interesting finding was the importance of sustained participation in those activities," Rex LaMore, lead author and director of MSU's Center for Community and Economic Development, said in releasing the study. "If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you're more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed, or articles published. And that was something we were surprised to discover."

The study was based on access to an elite group of people who graduated from MSU's Honors College from 1990 to 1995. All of them were very smart, or they would not have been in the honors program. Most undoubtedly came from privileged homes where creativity was treasured and opportunities abounded, so these results may not apply to everybody.

But the numbers are so impressive that it would require a huge margin of error for them to be irrelevant.

Eighty-two persons participated in the study. All had majored in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM.) Music was the most common form of creative activity, and a whopping 93 percent of the participants maintained a lifelong involvement in music compared to 34 percent of the general public.

Except for the huge gap between those numbers, that may not seem all that surprising, because numerous studies over the years have documented the effect of early music lessons on the development of the human brain. Scientists at Concordia University in Montreal found earlier this year that the younger the lessons started, the greater the impact on the brain.

And scientists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., found last year that even a little musical training during childhood enhances the brain's ability to respond to complex sounds.

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