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Music Training Improves Attention and Memory in Kids, New Study Shows

music training

Verywell / Joshua Seong

 

Key Takeaways

  • Musical training can improve children's executive functioning and have social-emotional learning benefits.
  • There is also evidence that musical training helps kids with developmental and learning disorders.
  • While the main developmental benefits happen when you start musical training from a young age, it's never too late to learn.

Children with musical training had increased activation in cognitive control areas of their brains and performed better on auditory and visual memory tasks than children without musical training, a new study published in October 2020 found.

“Learning and performing a musical instrument can affect every part of a child’s development. Multiple studies confirm that engaging in private or group music instruction can promote improved cognitive skills and academic performance,” says Bree Gordon, a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC) and the director of Creative Arts Therapies of the Palm Beaches in Florida.

Actively participating in musical training as a child can have numerous benefits on executive function, such as working memory, social-emotional learning, and may have benefits for students with developmental or learning difficulties, the study notes.

What the Study Found

40 children—half with musical training and half without—aged 10 to 13 participated in the study. The musically trained children had been playing an instrument for a minimum of two years, regularly played in an orchestra or ensemble, and practiced at least two hours per week. The children without musical training confirmed that they could not read or write musical scores and had no musical experience outside of typical school instruction.

The researchers hypothesized that playing a musical instrument improves auditory and visual attention and working memory, and that the neural networks in musically trained children connected to these skills would be boosted.

To test this, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to track neural activity while the children participated in an encoding phase followed by memory retrieval tasks.

For the encoding phase, participants were given auditory and visual stimuli and asked to pay attention to just the visual, just the auditory, or both the visual and auditory simultaneously. Then, they were given a pair of both visual and auditory stimuli: an evolving abstract and a melody. Afterward, participants received a memory task to confirm where they were directing their attention.

They found that musically trained children performed better on both visual and auditory memory retrieval tasks overall and had higher activation in cognitive control regions of their brains than the control group.

“When children are making music and having musical experiences the auditory cortex of their brain is being stimulated. This is similar to working out a muscle and over time it gets bigger and stronger,” says Erin Layton, a Georgia-based music educator specializing in middle school chorus and music technology with over 16 years of teaching experience.

Researchers ensured that their control group hadn’t engaged in other activities requiring similar skills that musical training requires, such as self-control, concentration, and regular training. One limitation they noted is that this study didn’t allow them to analyze whether or not there “were differences in attention and WM [working memory] prior to musical training.”

Benefits of Childhood Musical Training

There are many benefits that musical training can have on children’s developing minds.

Improves Executive Functioning

According to the study, executive functions “allow us to regulate, control, and manage our thoughts, emotions, and decision making.” They include processes like working memory, goal-directed attention, task-switching, and cognitive flexibility. The study adds that greater cognitive flexibility can result in better reading skills in childhood, higher resilience, creativity, and improved quality of life.

“When children are making music their brains have to multitask," says Layton. "They are listening and experiencing at the same time. They are also using skills they develop over time through rehearsal and applying new skills learned to their musical experience."

While this study found that musically trained children’s executive functioning was greater than their non-musically trained counterparts, some research has found otherwise, specifically when it came to visual memory.

Martin Norgaard, PhD, an associate professor of music education at Georgia State University specializing in music cognition, suggested that how, when, and what type of instrument a child learns to play may explain the different findings in executive functioning.

For example, playing the violin requires one to adjust their finger to get the note in tune, and typically, you play one note at a time, he says. On the other hand, the piano key you play correlates to one note, and you can play many notes on the piano at a time.

Erin Layton, Music Educator

A high proportion of students in middle and high school who study music outpace their peers who do not study music in academic achievement. I think it’s important to value music education for its social-emotional as well as academic benefits.

— Erin Layton, Music Educator

Aids Working Memory

Working memory also benefits from playing a musical instrument. Eye-tracking studies found that the more advanced of a musician a person is, the farther ahead they are reading in the music while simultaneously playing an earlier measure.

“That means that in working memory, they have to remember what it is they saw half a second ago because that's what they are playing, even though they're reading something else. You are pulling in and out of working memory constantly,” says Norgaard.

In addition, Norgaard says that when you are improvising what you are playing, you have to keep chord progressions in your working memory to ensure you don’t repeat yourself. He has studied the effects of improvisation training on the mind and found that students who were taught to improvise in their music had improvements in their executive function compared to the group that didn’t learn to improvise.

“One of the misnomers is that we tend to think of music as being creative, but if I give you some sheet music that's pre-composed, and I said, ‘OK, you've got to learn this,’ is that really creative? Creativity is about creating something new. Here, you're not creating anything new. You're just playing the piece that's already been composed, [and] you're not improvising,” says Norgaard.

Contributes to Social-Emotional Learning

Music also plays a role in social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL helps students gain skills such as self-awareness, social awareness, and responsible decision making that apply to and go beyond the music classroom, according to the National Association for Music Education.

Norgaard believes this is perhaps the most important benefit for musically trained children. 

“For social-emotional learning, it doesn't matter whether you were playing something pre-learned or improvised,” says Norgaard. “There's some emotional connection to music. There may be a couple of kids that have an emotional connection to math, but it's not that common.”

Gordon says that “music is motivating and joining a band or group can increase socialization and reduce isolation.” She has personally seen children who self-identify as depressed and anxious write, record, and perform music in front of hundreds of strangers.

SEL and music work together in education, too. Music can be an emotional stimulus, for imagination, as a form of self-expression, and a kind of group experience. Layton says that it teaches students discipline and commitment.

“A high proportion of students in middle and high school who study music outpace their peers who do not study music in academic achievement. I think it’s important to value music education for its social-emotional as well as academic benefits,” says Layton.

Martin Norgaard, PhD

There's some emotional connection to music. There may be a couple of kids that have an emotional connection to math, but it's not that common.

— Martin Norgaard, PhD

Positive Impact on Children With Developmental Disorders

Music also has academic benefits for children with different developmental and learning disorders. Children with autism who have limited language skills may use music to help them improve their ability to communicate. There is also some research that shows that musical training can positively affect children with attention and auditory developmental disorders, such as ADHD or dyslexia.

Gordon suggests that learning and playing music can help children process new information and that it can also act as a kinesthetic, or hands-on, learning style.

“As a therapist, I think the most beneficial thing about being involved in musical training is that music allows you to be exactly who you are, exactly as you are. Music promotes creativity and creative thinking that is outside the box which is so valuable to a child with an intellectual or developmental disability,” says Gordon.

One of the main reasons Layton entered the field of music education was to provide the same learning opportunities to her students that she was afforded when she joined the band in elementary school. Through the use of pattern, rhythm, pitch, beat, and other musical concepts, Layton says she overcame her learning issues and improved her reading and language skills.

“Music also increased my sense of personal success,” says Layton. “I will always remember the moment I played my first song on my flute. I felt like a genius. That feeling of success and accomplishment gave me a more positive self-perception and the feeling that I was able to learn.”

It's Never Too Late to Learn

While people will experience the most benefits from a developmental standpoint during the earlier years of their childhood, a person’s ability to learn music never goes away.

“As a music therapist that specializes in working with seniors with neurodegenerative diagnoses like Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Parkinson’s, I am continually impressed by what my patients can learn when given the opportunity, patience, and time," says Gordon.

What This Means For You

If you have a young child, consider enrolling them in music lessons or encouraging them to join band, orchestra, or chorus at their school. The benefits of musical training go beyond a child’s executive functioning—music can help children find their place.

“If school music or learning to play an instrument can make you a happier person, then you are going to be more likely to learn anything,” says Norgaard.

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