Are music lessons the key to smarter kids?

Are music lessons the key to smarter kids

My 4 year-old son Jamie started piano lessons last year. This might seem a little young, but the classes are designed to make learning music fun. Jamie’s teachers use an unique multi-sensory approach that engages the different senses: auditory, visual and kinaesthetic (movement).

The kids learn the notes as: do, re, mi, fa, so, etc, and each note has a corresponding colour, place on the body (do, the lowest note, is down on the toes…), and animal!

The teachers believe 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 manovured, co-ordination 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 the ear, the best way to train an ear is through singing and listening. So Jamie’s teachers ask him to sing as he plays so he develops good pitch sense and rhythm.

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
  • solve problems
  • plan and adjust to changing mental demands.

A recent study that appeared in the journal 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 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 practiced 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.

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?

Image credit: wikicomms media

Jennifer Zuk, Christopher Benjamin, Arnold Kenyon, Nadine Gaab. Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians.PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (6). 

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  1. joan taylor on July 20, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    I agree, while teaching yoga, I had listened to MPR and heard a talk, I had to pull over while driving to write this down: Studies have proven that: “routine patterned physical activity open up the neuro pathways of the brain.”
    The topic was does physical activity beneficial to children with brain disabilities. My conclusion was that we all could use better functioning brains. Thus when a person “thinks” they can not do the 26 poses that we do twice (one following the other) I( which we do in the same order each and every class) I explain how their diagnosed ADD/ADHD will be improved and they will benefit mentally as well.
    For the past 7 years I have been going regularly to the jail, teaching yoga and meditation…and have seem 180 degree changes in a few inmates once they understand and decide to change. One such person had been kicked out of every class he signed up for, and when he started yoga the guard kept asking me if I wanted him to be taken out of class, or removed from the list, I said NO, I am working with him. Unfortunately too soon after this break through the State prison wisked him away up to Warren, never to be heard from again. He was in GED classes and the GED teacher told me how he had begun to do the work, and started journaling.
    I am a believer….and look forward to this endeavour.

    sincerely, Joan Taylor R.N., C.Y.I., meditation facilitator thru Warriors At Ease

    • Sarah McKay on July 21, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      Joan – you are SO right. Sometimes we just need to be encouraged to have a ‘growth’ mindset, rather than a ‘fixed’ mindset (keep an eye out for an upcoming article I’m writing on this topic) x Sarah

  2. Linda McCarthy on July 20, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    Hello Sarah,
    I absolutely believe that all children should be taught music. I was enrolled in music when I was about 5 years old and then my lessons stopped because my mother didn’t drive and couldl not get me there. I resumed lessons in Grade 4 and continued taking music until I entered Grade 9 in school at which point I had performed in many recitals and had achieved Grade 8 in The Royal Conservatory of Music program here in Ontario, Canada.
    During my adult years both with working and bringing up three children, I did not get to play the piano as I would have liked; however, the benefits I received from music were with me through all of my life experiences.
    Just recently retired, myself and my husband were fortunate to join a musical band here in our city that was initiated by a retired high school music teacher. Our band is based on an international group called “Horizons” — many bands that exist in many cities both in Canada and the U.S.A. of older folks. Most of our members had never played a musical instrument in their lives. My husband was one of those people. There are 66 members of our band ages 18 to 88 and we play regularly in the church which offers their location for our twice weekly practices. Also, we visit the nursing homes in our area, to share our music with the residents and as well we play for the children in the elementary systems here to help the children understand all the instruments that make up a band or an orchestra. Our members are totally committed to making music and do so as we are all quite aware of the enhanced plasticity to our brains as we play our insturments.

    Please expose your son to music once you complete your travels! Music is and can be a life long journey of a multitude of benefits!


    • Sarah McKay on July 21, 2014 at 12:23 pm

      Hi Linda – I must look up ‘Horizons’ online. Sounds like a great incentive.
      We’ll definitely keep the music education up while we travel … my husband just discovered Spotify!!


  3. How to play the piano on August 30, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Hello, I just discovered a awesome piano lesson tutorial on the Internet. I try it and my advise is this one: if you want to learn about the piano quickly then get this course by clicking on How to play the piano

  4. Emily on October 2, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Great article! Learning music at a young age certainly has its benefits. In addition to positive effects on brain development, it can also teach kids about patience and is certainly a better alternative to watching tv.

  5. Julie Mair on March 17, 2018 at 11:23 am

    Oh wow, all this is so true, I learnt music when very young. My mother taught piano to adults and it was such an amazing thing. The love, respect and joy it created all round still resonates from her ex pupils though she has passed away it lives on. I am so grateful the influence of music in my life. I love the idea of your method for your son. Mine was so musical, yet it was ruined by strict teaching and he dropped out. Sad as he is so musical and I thought without doubt there was a budding Mozart inside him.

  6. Sienna on June 11, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    I agree with you. That is why I also want my kid to learn instruments and especially piano at an early age. I will help him in learning piano. He is 3 years old at the moment and I think this is too early. Depending on his maturity level I will start training maybe at 4 or 5.

  7. Rock Out Loud on July 24, 2021 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks for sharing the benefits of music lessons for the kids. Music lessons improve learning ability of kids while helping them learn new skills and boost confidence for a better future. Keep posting useful stuff like this!

  8. The Best Piano Teachers on February 7, 2022 at 6:07 pm

    I was really impressed with the article. It’s very informative and well-written. I love learning about new things, especially when they have to do with brain development and how it affects our lives in general as adults and children. Music is something that many people like, but not everyone has an interest in playing or studying music so this could be a great way for them to develop their skills while also enjoying what they are doing at the same time!

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About Dr Sarah

I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.

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