Sunday, July 14, 2013

How did learning the piano/clarinet/guitar/drums/flute/violin/etc. benefit you?

We have all heard the rumors that learning to play an instrument as a child is “good for you,” but very seldom do children or their parents know why.

Previous studies have shown that musical training can improve processing of speech and language, spatial reasoning, mathematical reasoning, motor abilities, and attention. However, given the range of cognitive resources needed for all of these skills, it is likely that instead of musical training acting directly on all these processes, musical training is enhancing a more central cognitive process that then lends itself to improvements in these areas. This process may be what psychologists call working memory.

Working memory refers to information that is held in mind and manipulated for short periods of time. For example, working memory can be evaluated by reading an individual a string of numbers such as 2-8-3-9-5-7-4 and asking that person to repeat those numbers in ascending numerical order or 2-3-4-5-7-8-9. Most people can do this task very well for up to 7 digits and very few can go past 9. Working memory, or being able to hold small pieces of information in mind and manipulate them, is essential to every mental process. Thus, many linguists and psychologists hypothesize that musical training improves working memory, which then improves a wide range of other cognitive abilities.

In their recent longitudinal study, Dr. Ingo Roden and his colleagues at the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg, Germany asked the question:

Does music training enhance working memory?

To address this question the research team followed 50 grade school children (7-8 years old) for 18 months. At the beginning of the study, half of the children were randomly selected to participate in 45 minutes of instrumental music training in the instrument of their choice beginning in 2nd grade. The remaining children were selected to participate in 45 minutes of weekly natural science training with a focus on mathematics for the same time period. All of the children were assessed three times across 18 months for IQ, parent education and income, and several different indices of cognitive processing and working memory. Specifically, each of the different working memory tests aimed to assess abilities related to visual or auditory working memory.



After 18 months, the children in the musical training condition showed dramatic increases in their auditory (phonological) working memory abilities while the children in the natural sciences condition showed no improvement in working memory. Specifically, children in the music condition showed a 15% increase in their capacity to store auditory information, and a 17% increase in their ability to mentally rehearse that information for future use. In contrast, the children in the two conditions show no differences in visual working memory across the three evaluations. It is important to note that these findings are above and beyond the contribution of the child’s intelligence, child’s age, parent education, and family income on working memory ability which were controlled for in all models. Thus, participating in music training causes long term improvements in working memory, the central mental process of acquiring and using information.

After reading this study, I wonder how practice plays into the effects we are seeing in this study. I expect that many of the music condition children practiced their instrument at home, while fewer of the natural sciences children went home to practice that. So even though the formal intervention for each group was 45 minutes per week for 18 months, the music children may have been getting much more because they practiced. I also wonder whether these benefits are unique to music or are simply a consequence of the skills necessary to learn an instrument. For example, to play an instrument, one must remember which hand positions correspond to each note, and also remember the order of notes in a scale or a song. Would similar benefits working memory benefits be seen if the active condition were learning a new language? Or learning ballet or tap dancing where such component skills are also prominent?

Unlike many of the topics I have written about, this topic has been extensively studied for decades with psychology and related fields. One question that is often asked relates to the developmental nature of these effects. Put more simply, does music training only benefit children? The short answer is NO. Several studies have shown the cognitive benefits of learning to play an instrument among adults ages 18-35 and even 60-85. The general cognitive benefits appear to apply across the lifespan. This is important because getting children to stick with a instrument is a quite a challenge for a parent, but often that is because practicing an instrument at home is a solitary activity that conflicts with their biologically driven needs for social development during childhood. If the benefits extend to everyone, why not pick up an instrument yourself and model the dedication you would like to see in them? Not only will you likely stop forgetting where you put your keys, but you also get more irreplaceable time with your child.


Roden, I., Grube, D., Bongard, S., & Kreutz, G. (2013). Does music training enhance working memory performance? Findings from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study. Psychology of Music.

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