People With Music Training Show Enhanced Brain Function, Study Says

Musical training may help set up children with a better academic future.

Boston Symphony Orchestra with Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Photo by Stu Rosner provided by the BSO

Boston Symphony Orchestra with Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Photo by Stu Rosner provided by the BSO

Perhaps you should have been more excited to take those piano lessons as a child.

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital conducted a controlled study using functional MRI brain imaging and found a possible biological link between early musical training and improved executive brain function in both children and adults. The study was published online in the June 17 issue of the journal, PLOS ONE.

Boston Children’s Hospital defines executive functions as “the high-level cognitive processes that enable people to quickly process and retain information, regulate their behaviors, make good choices, solve problems, plan, and adjust to changing mental demands.”

Researchers note that it was already clear that musical training relates to cognitive abilities, but few previous studies had looked at its effects on executive functions specifically.

“Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications,” says study senior investigator Nadine Gaab, a researcher at the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s. “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.”

Gaab and her team compared 15 musically trained children, ages 9 to 12, with a control group of 12 untrained children of the same age. The children who were musically trained had to have played an instrument for at least two years in regular private music lessons. (The study notes that on average, the children had actually played for 5.2 years, practiced 3.7 hours per week, and started at the age of 5.9.) Also compared was 15 adults who were active professional musicians with 15 adults who were not musicians. Both control groups had no musical training beyond general school requirements.

According to the study:

Since family demographic factors can influence whether a child gets private music lessons, the researchers matched the musician/non-musician groups for parental education, job status (parental or their own) and family income. The groups, also matched for IQ, underwent a battery of cognitive tests, and the children also had functional MRI imaging (fMRI) of their brains during testing.

On cognitive testing, adult musicians and musically trained children showed enhanced performance on several aspects of executive functioning. 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. These areas, the supplementary motor area, the pre-supplementary area and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, are known to be linked to executive function.

“Our results may also have implications for children and adults who are struggling with executive functioning, such as children with ADHD or [the] elderly,” Gaab says. “Future studies have to determine whether music may be utilized as a therapeutic intervention tools for these children and adults.”

One really interesting part of the study’s write-up said 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. The researchers hope to perform additional studies in children over time in order to see if musical training influences executive function, and not the other way around.