Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

music-education-piano

(Photo: DigiCake/Shutterstock)

New Evidence of Mental Benefits From Music Training

• June 18, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: DigiCake/Shutterstock)

Harvard-based researchers find a link between early musical training and cognitive capacities that allow for planned, controlled behavior.

As we’ve reported, a large body of research has noted a link between music education and higher test scores. But precisely why learning an instrument would have a positive impact on academic achievement has never been clear.

A new study from Boston Children’s Hospital provides a possible answer. It reports musical training may promote the development and maintenance of a key set of mental skills.

These executive functions, which are coordinated in the brain’s frontal lobe, “allow for planned, controlled behavior,” writes a research team led by Harvard University scholar Nadine Gaab. They enable us to manage our time and attention, organize our thoughts, and regulate our behavior—abilities that are crucial to success in school, as well as later life.

“Replacing music programs with reading or math instruction in our nation’s school curricula in order to boost standardized test scores may actually lead to deficient skills in other cognitive areas.”

In an experiment featuring two separate groups of test subjects—one consisting of children, the other of adults—Gaab and her colleagues discovered a link between early musical training and heightened executive functioning. This, they argue, could explain “the previously reported links between musical training and enhanced cognitive skills.”

In the online journal PLoS One, they describe a study featuring 30 adults between the ages of 18 and 35 (15 working musicians, and 15 non-musicians), and 27 children between the ages of nine and 12 (15 of whom had at least two years of musical training).

All performed a series of tasks to measure various facets of cognitive ability, including verbal fluency, mental processing speed, and working memory—the crucial ability to hold several ideas in your mind at the same time. In addition, the children performed a separate mental task while their brains were scanned using fMRI technology.

The key result: “Children and adults with extensive musical training show enhanced performance on a number of executive-function constructs compared to non-musicians,” the researchers write, “especially for cognitive flexibility, working memory, and processing speed.”

The musically trained children showed “heightened activation in traditional executive-function regions” of the brain during a task-switching exercise, they report, along with “enhanced performance on measures of verbal fluency.”

Gaab and her colleagues caution that more research will be needed to show causation. The chicken-and-egg question has been raised in the past in regard to music and the brain, and these results don’t definitively answer it: It’s possible that kids with higher levels of executive functioning are more likely to be drawn to studying music.

Longitudinal studies, measuring executive functioning before music training begins, will presumably be required to definitively answer that question. But the very real possibility that music training boosts executive functioning provides another argument for the importance of music education.

“Replacing music programs with reading or math instruction in our nation’s school curricula in order to boost standardized test scores,” the researchers warn, “may actually lead to deficient skills in other cognitive areas.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Israeli researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.