The Influence of Music Education on Developing Children

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The Influence of Music Education on Developing Children

Assal Habibi, Principal Investigator, Brain and Music Program, Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles; Beatriz Ilari, Department Chair, Music Teaching and Learning, USC


The past two decades of psychological and neuroscientific research on music have provided robust evidence that learning to play music can support brain maturation and the development of cognitive and social skills in children and adolescents. Learning an instrument requires long hours of practice, focused attention, memory, and discipline; mastering one involves the continuous capacity to improve motor, auditory, and executive skills, and is likely to influence the differential development, maintenance, and function of certain brain structures and systems.

Our research group at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC) has been involved in music, neuroscience, and education research for the past decade. In 2012, with the intention to systematically investigate the effects of music training on child development, we undertook a longitudinal study of school-aged children, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at the Heart of Los Angeles program, known as YOLA at HOLA. Inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, YOLA is a signature education program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic that offers free group-based music instruction four to five days a week to children from minority groups and underserved L.A. communities. This high-intensity program focuses on rhythm, melody, harmony, and ensemble playing with the goal of promoting social cohesion. We opted for a longitudinal design because it allowed us to continuously follow students over a prolonged period (2012–2020) and to assess how learning music influences their cognitive, social, and emotional development as well as brain development. Following is a summary of the study and some of its most important findings.

We recruited 88 children participants aged 6–7, from three groups. The first group constituted children who were about to begin participation in the YOLA at HOLA program. The second group of children was about to begin participation in community-based sports programs. The third group was recruited from public elementary schools and community centers in the same L.A. neighborhoods where the two music and sports programs were being offered; these children were not in afterschool music or sports programs. Foreseeing that scholars may reasonably relate our future findings to genetic and/or environmental predispositions, and not music training per se, we tested all participants at the beginning of the study, before any music or sports training. These tests indicated that the children in the music training group were not different from those in the other two groups in brain measures or in intellectual, motor, musical, and social capacities.

Each year thereafter, we met all participants and their families at our institute for a two- to three-day testing period. During these visits, we measured each child’s language and memory abilities, music and speech processing, and social and emotional skills. We used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to track each child’s brain development. MRI is a noninvasive imaging technique that is increasingly used as a research tool with children. Unlike conventional x-rays, MRI does not involve exposure to radiation and is therefore considered safe for children and infants. MRI technology allows us to investigate the development of brain structures, their functions, and how they are connected to one another. We also conducted yearly interviews with their families.

We found that children who received music training performed better than children in both comparison groups at several tasks measuring musical and auditory skills, including pitch, rhythm discrimination, and beat perception. The children in the music group were also the only ones to display an increased functional development of the auditory pathway, the brain pathway responsible for encoding and processing sound, as measured by electrophysiology (EEG). We also observed that children who were learning music were better at decision-making and at controlling their impulses. For example, they were more capable of rejecting a small immediate reward in favor of larger and better rewards later on. In addition, these children displayed stronger engagement of the brain’s prefrontal network, at younger ages, when performing tasks inside the MRI scanner that require executive function and decision-making. Finally, interviews with families showed that the parents of children who participated in both music and sports programs felt that those children were less aggressive and hyperactive, and showed more emotional stability over time than children who did not attend such programs.

The findings from our study highlight the critical role of music and arts education in a child’s development. Yet many students in our current educational system have limited access to theatre, dance, or music classes. And schools serving students from ethnic and racial minorities and students from low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by the decline of funding for arts education. We hope that these findings provide the necessary evidence for policymakers to allocate the essential budgets to support the implementation and maintenance of music education for every student.


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