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 TimesChicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.