a girl playing pianoMusic has many benefits for children and adults and a new study adds one more to the list: executive function. Executive function is the term for a series of high-level cognitive processes like problem solving, planning, and behavioral regulation. Research from the Boston Children’s Hospital finds that musical training can improve executive function in both children and adults. The results suggest that musical training could boost children’s academic performance.

Children and adults participated in the study. The researchers compared a group of 15 musically-trained children aged nine to 12 with at least two years of private music lessons to a group of 12 age-matched children with no musical training. They also compared 15 adults who were active professional musicians to 15 adults who were not musicians. All the participants completed a series of cognitive tests. In addition to the cognitive tests, the children performed a task-switching test while undergoing a functional MRI (fMRI) scan. Since demographic factors influence whether children have access to music education, the researchers controlled for factors like parental education and family income.

Both the musically-trained children and adults performed better in the cognitive tests than their untrained peers. The musically-trained participants tested better specifically in several executive function categories. The fMRI scans revealed that children with musical training had enhanced activation in areas of the pre-frontal cortex associated with executive function.

The findings indicate that there may be a biological link between musical training in childhood and executive functioning later on. The study also has implications for education because executive function is a strong predictor of academic achievement. Music training could be an effective intervention for children with disorders that inhibit executive function like ADHD or autism. However, it is not certain whether children with strong executive function skills are drawn to music or if musical training enhances executive function on its own.

“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 set up children for a better future,” commented senior investigator Nadine Gaab, Ph.D., from the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s.

This research is published in the journal PLOS One.

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