My youngest son is now 13, but when he was four, he started piano lessons. Four years old might seem a little young, but the classes were designed to make learning music fun. His teachers used a unique multi-sensory approach that engages the different senses: auditory, visual and kinaesthetic (movement).
The kids learned the notes do, re, mi, fa, so, etc, and each note had a corresponding colour, place on the body (do, the lowest note, is down on the toes…), and animal!
His teachers believed piano is the best instrument to start on because:
All of the notes are easily accessible – meaning each note is as easy to play (push down) as another. Lots of instruments require a combination of keys or strings to be manoeuvred, coordination of stance and holding an instrument in a precise position, or positioning of lips and lung capacity to produce different notes. Not an easy task for young children!
Notes are visually laid out in order from lowest to highest, so it is easy to understand.
The piano is an instrument where the player learns to play both melody and harmony (chords) whereas most orchestral instruments are single-line instruments.
Because music is perceived through hearing, the best way to train an ear is through singing and listening. To develop pitch and rhythm, my son’s teachers asked him to sing as he played.
He no longer plays piano but has played euphonium in his school orchestra since he was eight and has a deep love and understanding of music.
The wonderfully engaging way he is learning music started me thinking, what does the research say about children and music?
Learning music from a young age can boost the executive brain function of both adults and children.
Executive functions are the high-level cognitive processes that enable you to do things like:
quickly process and retain information
regulate your behaviour
make good choices
plan and adjust to changing mental demands.
A 2014 study in PLOS ONE used functional MRI brain imaging to reveal a possible biological link between early musical training and improved executive functioning in both children and adults.
The small study compared 15 musically trained children, aged 9 to 12, with a control group of 12 untrained children of the same age. Musically trained children had to have played an instrument for at least two years in regular private music lessons. And on average, the children had played for 5.2 years and practised 3.7 hours per week, starting at the age of 5.9. Fifteen adults who were active professional musicians were similarly compared to 15 non-musicians.
The study found that:
Musically trained children and adults showed enhanced performance on several aspects of executive functioning.
We know that executive functioning abilities are more predictive of ‘academic readiness’ for schooling than intelligence, and predict maths and reading skills throughout all levels of schooling. So developing these skills is crucial for academic readiness and long-term achievement.
Study senior investigator Nadine Gaab, PhD, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s says,
“Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications.”
And she adds,
“Our results may also have implications for children and adults who are struggling with executive functioning, such as children with ADHD or [the] elderly. Future studies have to determine whether music may be utilised as a therapeutic intervention tools for these children and adults.”
On fMRI, the children with musical training showed enhanced activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex during a test that made them switch between mental tasks.
As Nadine Gaab explains,
“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.”
2023 Research Updates New Research
Research investigating the effect of music on the developing brain has continued. From preschool-aged children to adolescents, studies have repeatedly found that musically-trained children show improvements in executive functioning, as well as working memory and cognitive flexibility.
Similarly, research has consistently shown that musically-trained adults have better executive functioning and working memory than non-musical adults. This may be due to enhanced brain connectivity. Interestingly, the musician’s chosen instrument can also alter the degree of executive functioning.
In a 2023 study, researchers found that during early adolescence, children who are musically trained are better at task-switching. But this behavioural advantage over their non-musical peers disappears by their late adolescence and early adulthood. However, when they imaged participants’ brains, the researchers discovered that the musically-trained young adults had comparatively lower brain activity (a measure of efficiency) when doing the test than non-musicians. This suggests that despite performing similarly, the musicians’ brains still were more efficient at task-switching.
The link between musical training and academic performance in children has now been established. In 2019, a large-scale population study analysed data from over 110,000 Canadian high school students from years 10 to 12. The researchers controlled for the influence of socioeconomic background, ethnicity, gender and literacy and numeracy skills. They found that the greater the participation in musical activities, the better the students performed in their year 10 and 12 exams in English, maths and science. The effect was particularly pronounced for students engaging in instrumental rather than singing.
The principal researcher on the study Professor Peter Gouzouasis emphasised the role of musical education in enhancing broader learning outcomes, saying:
“The students who learned to play a musical instrument in elementary and continued playing in high school not only score significantly higher, but were about one academic year ahead of their non-music peers. Often, resources for music education are cut or not available in elementary and secondary schools so that they could focus on math, science and English. The irony is that music education can be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.”
Music is now being investigated as a therapeutic tool to boost cognitive function in both adults and children. In an otherwise healthy but non-musical elderly population, six months of piano training was associated with memory improvements and preservation of their brain’s white matter. Simply listening to music for six months has no effect. The piano-playing group even had increased cortical brain tissue by the end of the intervention, whilst the listening group instead had areas of cortical thinning.
Music is emerging as a useful intervention for the recovery and treatment of a variety of adult neurological conditions. Music was beneficial for executive function, movement, memory and emotion in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, as well as stroke and traumatic brain injury.
Music therapy can also improve young children’s language skills and executive functioning, making music an important tool for childhood development. Research into music therapy for children with ADHD is still lacking, but preliminary evidence in neurodiverse children does show promising results.
A version of this blog was first published in 2014. First updated May 2023.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this finding. If you have kids, do they learn a musical instrument? Or did you learn one as a child yourself?