Music and Young Minds

Music Head

The Effect of Musical Training on the Cognitive Ability in Youth


For years the scientific community has been looking for a link between musical training and improved cognitive ability. Studies considered groundbreaking in the past have subsequently been accepted and refuted by experts.

“The earlier you start the better,” Darcey Powell, assistant professor of psychology at Virginia’s Roanoke College, says. “We believe it is more impacting in the areas of musical self-discipline and diligence.”

“It’s clear that 3- and 4-year-olds are quite able to be actively involved in music,” Professor Walter Dowling, at the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, says. “Kids are beginning to understand how a scale is put together. By 5 or 6, they can make out the difference between major and minor scales.”

Christine Weber, Ph.D., clinical neuropsychologist on Long Island, New York, believes there is a period when children are more sensitive to music’s effects on the brain. Changing the brain’s architecture is much easier for children than adults.

“During sensitive periods, neural circuits are being reinforced and becoming relatively stable,” Dr. Weber says. “Children engaged in a repetitive activity are altering neural circuits, reinforcing some while pruning others.”

Judith Muir, director of programs at The Institute for Music and Health in Hudson Valley, New York, founded by John Diamond, M.D., is a world authority on the arts for well-being. She begins working with children as young as 3 to make and learn music in a minimally stressful way.

Muir says, “I do activities that last two or three minutes. They go on to develop a larger repertoire of songs.”

Joanne Lara, M.A., author of “Autism Movement Therapy Method: Waking up the Brain,” agrees that a child’s first experience with music should be simple.

“If you take a brain that’s not used to music and present information that’s not too complicated, the brain can process it without shutting down,” she explains.

Lara uses specially-selected music without lyrics that scaffolds on each other to introduce movement. She feels this honors the brain.

Researchers have studied the effects of various musical genres on cognitive ability. In 1993, “The Mozart Effect” study at the University of California/Irvine exposed college students to Mozart selections, a relaxation tape or silence. Spatial reasoning tests conducted immediately after their sessions showed the subjects who listened to Mozart had improved memory for about 10 to 15 minutes following their session. Follow-up studies have led experts to refute these results.

“What’s good for children is that it should be music they can get into doing themselves,” Professor Dowling explains. “Whatever kind of music their culture/subculture provides them is going to be good for that. I think people have largely given up looking for specific effects of specific kinds of music, though not all have.”

According to Dr. Weber, participating in music utilizes auditory, visual and tactile inputs—all vital to cognitive processing.

“Children who participate in musical activities are engaged in active learning that can lead to changes in brain structure and neuronal enhancement,” she says.

Right Brain versus Left Brain

“Our brain has a right hemisphere and left hemisphere,” Dr. Julia Kim, clinical psychologist for the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City/Manhattan, says. “Learning music uses both sides of the brain.

The right hemisphere controls our hearing and emotional expression of music. The left hemisphere works to understand the musical structure which is more analytical.

“Individuals with autism have a splintered skill set,” Lara says, having taught hundreds of autistic children in Los Angeles, California, and around the world. “We have kids with autism who can’t talk, but can sing. If you have a neurological deficit and it manifests in speech and language impairment, you know the left side of the brain has some kind of a big issue going on.”

“Learning to play an instrument requires the coordination of sensory skills and higher-order thinking,” Weber explains. “It’s learning to fluidly convert visual and auditory information into tactile information. Notes on a page are processed visually and associated with a particular sound produced by the coordination of the hands with the instrument.”

Experts agree that there are a multitude of benefits to be gained from early musical instruction.

“Distinguishing sounds is important in learning a new language,” Weber says. “Participation in music is thought to improve this ability.”

Dr. Nina Kraus at Northwestern University and Brain Volts Lab in Illinois has identified some brain changes known as “The Signature of Poverty” according to Jean Lachowicz, executive director of The Spirit of Harmony Foundation begun by musician Todd Rundgren’s fans to support the moral imperative of musical education.

“This is when a mother has a certain number of words in her vocabulary. That translates to poverty in the child’s brain, creating a far less level playing field,” Lachowicz, who has worked with Kraus, explains.

Kraus’ research found that two years of real music education erased this deficit for a lifetime.

Another of music’s benefits to the brain is enhanced neuroplasticity.

“What you’re talking about is changes in the brain,” Kim explains. “If you have someone who loses their eyesight, their hearing improves. That’s neuroplasticity.”

Lara says, “With neuroplasticity, once we start asking the brain to step up, it can. It’s the age of the brain.”

Research indicates musical training can improve a student’s school attendance and increases the likelihood of graduation.

“Music students have fewer absences than children who do not participate in music activities,” Weber says.

“Music makes school more fun,” Dowling explains. “It leads to improved grades. Musical training provides emotional support which leads to healthy trends in personality.”

“If your life energy is high, then the decisions you make become more positive,” Muir explains of her institute’s work. “Music is the mother, so the evolutionary purpose of singing, and therefore music, is to comfort the child and strengthen the bond which enhances brain development.”

Muir believes that individuals who share their music with others achieve a lasting internal foundation.

“Kids stay out of trouble,” she explains. “They know this sharing is important and are forever changed by that.

Emphasis on the arts in North American public schools is dwindling.

Lara says, “What the people making these decisions don’t understand is that the bridge to academics is through movement and music.”

“We have a strong network of committed people around the world who love and want to support music,” Lachowicz says of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. “Music is being cut. We want to help reverse this trend.”

Experts agree that the integration of musical training to improve cognitive ability in children is a two-way street.

“As far as we can tell, the causal arrows go both ways,” Dowling says. “The two complement one another. It’s usually the kids who are more cognitively advanced who want to participate in learning music and go further with it.”