Does Music Training Improve Other Skills?

Considerable research indicates that training in music theory and performance is associated with better performance on quantitative, reasoning, visual, and motor tasks, but recent findings offer a counterpoint.

Leonid Perlovsky

Leonid Perlovsky

Among the evidence supporting the benefits of musical training, De Rochebelle School (C.S.D.D)’s Arnaud Cabanac collaborated with Leonid Perlovsky of Harvard University, Canadian Air Force Research Laboratory’s Marie-Claude Bonniot-Cabanac, and Michel Cabanac of Laval University to report that student musicians earned better grades than peers and performed better on a more stressful, complicated tasks.

Michel Cabanac

Michel Cabanac

German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin)’s Adrian Hille and Jürgen Schupp, also of Free University of Berlin (FUB), concurred that long-term music training during childhood and youth affects cognitive skills development, school grades.

Adrian Hille

Adrian Hille

They examined data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) and found that adolescents with music training have better cognitive skills and school grades and were 15 percent more likely to report planning to attend a university.

In addition, these young musicians were more conscientious, open and ambitious across socio-economic statuses.
These improvements in cognitive and non-cognitive skills were more than twice as great as the contribution of sports, theater or dance training and participation.

Sylvain Moreno

Sylvain Moreno

Preschool children, too, demonstrated enhanced performance on a measure of verbal intelligence after participating in an interactive computerized music training, according to Rotman Research Institute’s Sylvain Moreno with University of Toronto colleagues E. Glenn Schellenberg and Tom Chau, who collaborated with York University’s Ellen Bialystok, Raluca Barac, and Nicholas J. Cepeda.  

They reported that after just 20 days of this computer-based music training, these children showed improvement on verbal tasks, and related changes in functional brain plasticity during an executive-function task.

Frances Rauscher

Frances Rauscher

Musical training was associated with better performance on auditory discrimination and fine motor tasks among children who had three years or more musical instrument training, according to University of Wisconsin’s Frances H. Rauscher with Gordon L. Shaw, and Catherine N. Ky of University of California, Irvine.

Marie Forgeard

Marie Forgeard

Children who received at least three years of instrumental music training outperformed their control counterparts on auditory discrimination abilities and fine motor skills, vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills in studies by University of Pennsylvania’s Marie Forgeard, with Andrea Norton, and Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard Medical School’s and Boston College’s Ellen Winner.

These performance enhancements were associated with duration of musical training, but Forgeard’s team did not replicate earlier findings of enhanced  spatial skills, phonemic awareness, and mathematical abilities.

In a sample of music listeners instead of music learners, National Cheng Kung University’s Pei-Luen Tsai and colleagues found that stroke patients in Taiwan showed improved visual attention while listening to classical music, compared with white noise and silence.

Samuel Mehr

Samuel Mehr

Despite this affirmative evidence, Samuel Mehr of Harvard University, who plays saxophone, flute, bassoon, oboe, and clarinet, found no evidence of a cognitive benefit when young children receive music lessons.

With Harvard colleagues Adena Schachner, Rachel C. Katz, and Elizabeth S. Spelke, Mehr conducted two Randomized Control Trials (RCT) with four year old preschool children to evaluate the cognitive effects of music classes, compared with non-musical visual arts instruction or to a no instruction.

After six weeks, the team evaluated children’s skills in:

  • Spatial-navigational reasoning
  • Visual form analysis
  • Numerical discrimination
  • Receptive vocabulary.
Adena Schachner

Adena Schachner

Although their initial findings suggested improved performance for children who received musical training, the team was unable to replicate the finding.
The team found a small positive effect of music instruction on intelligence in only one study.

They reported that children who participated in music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment.

Elizabeth Spelke

Elizabeth Spelke

Mehr and team concluded that before asserting cognitive benefits of music training, it is essential to:

-*What benefits on performance in other areas have you observed among people who have musical training?

-*How do you evaluate conflicting evidence for and against musical training’s impact on cognitive performance?

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1 thought on “Does Music Training Improve Other Skills?

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Angel Rampy wrote:
    This reminds me of a anecdotal story..where an apprentice asks a very wise man, Sir, How can I ever be as wise as you?”. The wise man replies, “Learn the violin!”
    I am sure this all has to do with working both sides of the brain.

    Thanks for the reminder, Angel, of why many people learn to play and appreciate music.
    Besides aesthetic appreciation and mood modulation, Emory’s Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Byron Gajewski of University of Kansas concluded that early musical training may preserve cognitive functions in aging.


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