Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Music Training and Executive Function

I’m going to take a break here from the neuroscience of practicing to discuss a new paper published this month in the journal Psychological Science.  But before I get to the paper, I’d like to tell you about one of my students.

Meet Ellis

Ellis, a scraggly-headed 6-year-old with intelligent brown eyes, is sitting on my piano bench for "solo time" during his weekly piano class.  He’s a smart little guy, and I’ve been teaching him since he was three and a half.  He plays very well for his age, and seems to like piano, despite a tendency to try to distract me into chatting instead of listening to him play.

We’ve just started learning the key of F major, and he struggles to remember that in his new songs, every B should be B flat.  It’s remarkable to me that as he plays, I have to remind him at every single B.  “B FLAT!”, “No, that should be flat”, “FLAT! FLAT!”  Why can’t he get this in his head?  The next week, Ellis gets most of the B’s right, but a few B naturals still sneak in.  His mother shrugs and shakes her head.  Then I hear him play a piece he’s been working on for several weeks, in C major, and I am stunned to hear him adding in B flats!  What is going on here?

Ellis is having a hard time with rule switching.  Ever since he started playing the piano, the rule was that when he saw a B on the page, he played a B on the keyboard.  Simple.  Now we’ve changed that rule.  In F major, when we see a B in the music, we have to play a B flat.  And then when we change back to a song in C major, B means B natural again.  The rule keeps switching. 

Executive Function
Rule switching is one of group of higher cognitive skills collectively known as executive function or cognitive control, and which reside in the prefrontal cortex, right behind your forehead.  Executive function includes three main skills:  working memory, which is keeping things in mind in the short-term, inhibition (i.e. self-control), and cognitive flexibility, which includes rule-switching.  The prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to fully develop in children, which explains why kids have a hard time controlling their behaviour (they’re still developing that self-control), and also explains Ellis’s problems with rule-switching.  Executive function in children is a predictor of success in school, even more so than IQ.  

Musical Training improves Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function
In a paper published this month, researchers at York University led by Sylvain Moreno compared the effects of music training and visual arts training on verbal intelligence, spatial intelligence, and executive function.  They ran a summer camp for two groups of 4- to 6-year-olds, with one group receiving two hours a day of music training, and the second group receiving two hours of visual arts training.  The music curriculum included instruction on pitch, rhythm, melody, singing and music theory including note-reading.  The visual arts curriculum included instruction on shape, colour, line, dimension, and perspective.  The researchers figured that music training might enhance language skills, while visual arts training might enhance spatial skills.  What they found was that only the music training led to improvements in verbal skills and executive function, and neither training enhanced spatial skills.

Why does music training improve executive function?
I’ll talk about the effect of music training on verbal skills another day.  It’s interesting and relevant, but today I’m more interested in the effect of music training on executive function.  The task used to probe executive function in these children tested both working memory and inhibition.  The researchers suggest that music training uses parts of the brain that control executive function, and this is why the training improves these skills.  Studying music requires concentration, memorization, and attention, and enhances these skills in children.  That enhancement can then transfer to executive function in general. 

I’ve long thought that music training must improve executive function, simply because it requires the use of executive function.  This study looked at the effects of short-term, beginner music training in a classroom setting. Just imagine how much executive function improvement results from daily instrumental music practice!  Children learn self-discipline, use focused attention, working memory, and, as we have seen, rule-switching.  Music study constantly stretches the limits of these brain functions, making them stronger and more capable.  And these cognitive abilities are useful for a huge variety of life-tasks, including schoolwork.

Ellis will eventually get the hang of switching between key signatures, and by doing so, will increase his general ability to rule-switch.  This strengthening of neural circuits in his prefrontal cortex will give him an advantage in many aspects of life.


  1. So, is it safe to say that practice time during the day enhances the ability to do school work? School homework is very often the priority but practice could make other study come easier. I highlighted your blog on my post this week and used a quote. I hope that is alright?

  2. BusyB, I think that OVERALL, practicing music enhances schoolwork. On any given day, practicing music might not help with schoolwork done on that day, but over time, musical training is going to increase a child's ability to focus on his schoolwork, and give him the discipline to sit down and do homework each day.

    Thanks so much for highlighting my blog! It's great to know there are other people as interested in this as I am.

  3. I teach high school aged students and often encourage them to alternate between study and practice as a means of reinforcing the learning taking place in both subjects. I students to practice 20 minutes, then study 20 minutes. Switching back and forth helps to clear the head from one subject area to another. I start with the 2o minute suggestion and let them develop their own rhythm. Is there any scientific research available that might support this theory?

  4. It is really interesting that the authors conducted this study across different age groups, but to my knowledge have not reported the results across the board. 

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  6. Are there any good studies on how music practice effects adults that have only started learning an instrument in adult hood?