More Evidence Musical Training May Boost Executive Function

Pauline Anderson

June 20, 2014

New research provides more evidence that musical training enhances executive function (EF), especially in the areas of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and processing speed, and this may explain the link to academic achievement.

The finding makes sense as such training involves sustained attention, goal-directed behavior, and cognitive flexibility, researchers say, but their cross-sectional study can't rule out the possibility that prior executive function promotes musical training and not the other way around.

"The most important part of the study is that it showed that musicians, both children and adults, had better executive functioning skills than nonmusicians, and that the brain of the child with musical training showed more activation and looked more mature in terms of executive functioning networks," said study author Nadine Gaab, PhD, from the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children's Hospital in Massachusetts.

However, more longitudinal studies are needed to examine a possible causal relationship among musical training, EF skills, and academic achievement, said Dr. Gaab.

The study was published online June 17 in PLOS One. The study was funded by the Grammy Foundation.

Dr. Nadine Gaab

Extracurricular Activity

EF includes several cognitive processes, including inhibition, problem solving, goal-directed behavior, working memory, and cognitive flexibility (the ability to adjust to novel or changing task demands). These cognitive processes develop rapidly during early childhood, the authors write.

Childhood activities that include a social, emotional, and/or physical component, and don't necessarily focus solely on EF skills exclusively, may help to enhance executive function, they say. For example, extracurricular activities such as martial arts, mindfulness training, and physical exercise have improved EF skills in children.

Researchers have speculated that one such extracurricular activity — music — may be particularly important. Playing a musical instrument requires skills associated with EF, such as sustained attention, goal-directed behavior, and task-switching demands of cognitive flexibility. There's evidence that musicians have enhanced general cognitive, academic, and language abilities that may be mediated by EF.

To learn more, researchers carried out a study among 30 right-handed adults (15 musicians and 15 nonmusicians) ranging in age from 18 to 35 years (mean age, 24.8 years). The musicians had started musical studies by or before age 9, were seeking or had obtained a music performance degree, and were working professionals.

Another experiment included 15 musically trained children aged 9 to 12 years and a control group of 12 untrained children of the same age. Musically trained children must have played an instrument for at least 2 years in regular private music lessons.

The adult nonmusicians and untrained children were carefully screened to have no prior musical training beyond general curriculum requirements. Both groups of adults and children were matched for several indicators of socioeconomic status, such as education, job status, and family income, as well as for IQ.

Test Battery

On both the adults and children, the researchers carried out a battery of standardized psychometric measures from the Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System that assessed cognitive flexibility, inhibition, verbal fluency, working memory, and processing speed.

The study showed that adult musicians and musically trained children had heightened performance on several, but not all, constructs of executive function. Adult musicians performed significantly better than nonmusicians on standardized measures, such as Verbal Fluency (P = .018), Design Fluency (P = .003), and Backward Digit Span (P = .001). There was also a trend toward significance (P = .098) for the Coding measure.

For children, those with musical training performed better on the Coding (P = .013), Verbal Fluency (P = .016), and Trail Making (P = .026) measures.


Musical expertise involves rapid adjustments to changes in tempo, rhythm, and musical style. Researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) to examine neural correlates of such executive functioning in children.

They specifically looked at mental flexibility with a "task switching" paradigm where children had to quickly switch answers depending on the given rule. For example, at the sound of a horse, they might be asked to press "left" when they saw a triangle and "right" for a circle, but when they heard a frog, to press "right" for a triangle and "left" for a circle.

The fMRI experiment showed more activation in the prefrontal cortex in children with musical training than in the untrained youngsters. For example, with task-switching, there was greater activation in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and in the right supramarginal gyrus in the musically trained children.

"We showed that children who are musically trained are better at these executive functioning tasks, and also that they use more of their prefrontal cortex," said Dr. Gaab.

It was interesting, the authors note, that significant differences in processing speed occurred only between the musically trained and untrained children.

"The development of processing speed has been described to begin in childhood and continue until adolescence," they write. "Therefore, it is possible that no differences in processing speed were observed between our adult musicians and non-musicians since processing speed has reached a performance plateau in this age group whereas we have captured this ability of a time of (rapid) development in our children."

While it's clear that musical training relates to cognitive abilities, few previous studies had specifically looked at its effects on executive functions. Results of studies that did examine these endpoints have been mixed and were limited by a lack of objective brain measurements and of well-defined musical training and control groups.

They also examined only a few aspects of executive function and inadequately adjusted for factors such as socioeconomic status, the authors note.

Chicken or Egg?

It's possible that EF skills predate musical training. "Longitudinal studies are definitely needed to follow kids over time and randomly assign them to music versus art or maybe baseball to see whether this is unique to music, but also to find out what's the egg and what's the chicken," said Dr. Gaab.

In the meantime, schools may do well to encourage musical programs for children, she said. "Currently, schools are trying to take away the arts and music and replace those classes with academic subjects in order to boost test scores, and I think that may not be the right strategy."

Not only might musical training boost kids' brain power, but it's also a fun activity and provides a lot of emotional and social support, said Dr. Gaab.

She noted that playing music with others in an orchestral setting may be more beneficial than practicing solo as it forces budding musicians to cooperate and take turns with each other and adapt quickly to changing instructions.

And it's never too late to pick up an instrument and benefit from training, said Dr. Gaab. "So many studies show that the brain is very plastic and remains plastic throughout life."

She cited one study in elderly patients that showed improved executive function but said that it should be interpreted cautiously because it didn't have a control group (the seniors had music training or no intervention).

Music therapy might also benefit patients with some degree of impaired executive functioning, including those with mild cognitive impairment, mild brain injury, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said Dr. Gaab.

The study was funded by the Grammy Foundation. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Plos One. Published online June 17, 2014. Full text


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