Does musical training help kids do better in school?

by Nancy Fliesler on June 19, 2014

music and executive functionMy daughter just surprised me by signing up for fifth grade band starting this fall. To my further delight, some new research—using both cognitive testing and brain imaging—suggests that as she practices her clarinet, she also may be honing her executive functions.

Like a CEO who’s on top of her game, executive functions—separate from IQ—are those high-level brain functions that enable us to quickly process and retain information, curb impulsive behaviors, plan, make good choices, solve problems and adjust to changing cognitive demands. While it’s already clear that musical training relates to cognitive abilities, few previous studies have looked at its effects on executive functions specifically.

The study, appearing this week in PLOS ONE, compared children with and without regular musical training, as well as adults. To the researchers’ knowledge, it’s the first such study to use functional MRI (fMRI) of brain areas associated with executive function and to adjust for socioeconomic factors.

That last one is critical. As just one example, parents with the financial means to pay for private music lessons may be more educated and more able to provide cognitive stimulation for their kids, both of which can also affect executive functioning.

A team led by Nadine Gaab, PhD, and Jennifer Zuk, EdM, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital, compared 15 musically trained children, ages 9 to 12, with a control group of 12 untrained children of the same ages. Musically trained children had to have played an instrument for at least two years in regular private music lessons. (On average, they had played for 5.2 years and practiced 3.7 hours per week, starting at the age of 5.9.) The researchers similarly compared 15 adults who were active professional musicians with 15 non-musicians.

Both control groups had no musical training beyond general school requirements. To control for socioeconomic factors, the musician/non-musician groups were carefully matched for parental education, job status (parental or their own) and family income. They were also matched for IQ.

The four groups then underwent a battery of cognitive tests, on which the adult musicians and musically trained children showed enhanced performance on several aspects of executive functioning.

functional MRI of executive function brain areas

Functional MRI imaging during mental task switching: Panels A and B shows brain activation in musically trained and untrained children, respectively. Panel C shows brain areas that are more active in musically trained than musically untrained children.

The children also underwent fMRI. Those with musical training showed enhanced activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex linked to executive functioning—namely, the supplementary motor area, the pre-supplementary area and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex—during a test that made them switch between mental tasks.

“Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications,” says Gaab. “While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future.”

But she’s quick to add that children who study music may already have executive functioning abilities that somehow attract them to music and predispose them to stick with their lessons. To establish that musical training influences executive function, and not the other way around, she hopes to perform additional studies that follow children over time, assigning them to musical training at random.

Such studies could provide solid ammunition for making recommendations to parents and schools. Gaab also speculates that the findings could have implications for the therapeutic use of music in children and adults who are struggling with executive functioning, such as children with ADHD or the elderly.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping my daughter’s band practice will help her make better choices when she gets to middle school.

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