The correlation between studying music and improved cognitive function has been fairly well researched. Children, regardless of age, who have had interactive experiences with music have demonstrated improved memory, language, and math skills over those who have not had such exposure. Also promising is that children who experience social dysfunction have seen progress in social performance when exposed to music.
Music and Memory
A study published in 2006 in the online edition of Brain found that musically trained children not only respond to music differently than untrained children, but that their memory was demonstrably better. After one year in the study, the children with musical instruction performed better in a memory test that examined skills in literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, mathematics and IQ.
At the same time, a review of 15 studies involving 701 children ages 3 to 12 years suggests that children exposed to musical training performed better on spatial-temporal tasks than their peers who had not been engaged with music.
The areas of the brain that responded the most to the training were areas connected with spatial orientation and time, assisting with the development of pattern recognition, counting, and organization.
Comparing several groups of children between 7 and 9 years old, researchers found that those who received computer-generated spatial-temporal training coupled with piano keyboard instruction scored significantly higher on a proportional reasoning test than the peers who had not received the keyboard lessons. This indicates a direct correlation between the improvement of mental ability and music training.
Music and Mathematics
Music instruction and improved math skills are also notably correlated, and the type of instrument learned appeared to influence overall performance.
Children who received at least two years of individual keyboard instruction scored higher on a standardized arithmetic test than children who were not exposed to any musical training. Children who received singing instruction also achieved similar results. Between all children who received musical training, however, it was those who were instructed on rhythm instruments that performed the best on a mathematical reasoning task.
Music and Social Development
McMaster University researchers have discovered that very early musical training benefits children even in their first year.
Compared to babies who were passively exposed to music, the infants who participated in interactive music classes not only demonstrated increased awareness of pitch structure in music, but also showed better early communication skills. The one-year-olds who participated in music classes were more likely to point to objects, wave goodbye, smile more, and showed less distress in unfamiliar situations and easier to soothe if they did get upset.
This advanced develop continues well into childhood, especially in the aspects of language instruction. Researchers found that in a group of ninety 6- to 15-year-old boys with music training had significantly better verbal memory than peers who had no such instruction. Amongst children who need extra language development assistance, a small study (nine boys between the ages of 8- and 10- years old) indicated that study of music was correlated with improved rapid temporal processing skills, phonological skills, and spelling skills.
There is also strong evidence that music therapy can improve communication, interpersonal relationships, stress management, and self-regulation for children on the autism spectrum. The mechanism is not yet clear, but it seems that children diagnosed with autism are often overwhelmed by sensory input, and music somehow assists with organizing that information.
Persistence of Effect
The age at which children begin musical instruction appears to affect the persistence of extra-musical cognitive benefits. Additionally, research suggests that a minimum of two years of training is required for any prolonged benefit.
However, for those who do take more than two years of musical lessons, the advantage lasts even after the discontinuation of lessons. In a study at Northwestern University, college students’ responses to complex sounds were studied; those who had reported musical training in childhood were better able to pick out essential elements in the complex sounds when they were tested, even if the lessons had ended years ago.
Of the musicians who did continue with their music lessons, researchers found that with age, they experienced the same decline in peripheral hearing as non-musicians. But those who continued to play instruments preserved the central auditory processing skills that help separate speech from a noisy background.
With such overwhelming evidence it is easy to see that music can have a great and lasting impact on the cognitive ability of a child. While these cases do not prove that musical training will instantly make a child “smarter,” it shows that exposure and involvement with music does have the ability to stimulate, and possibly enhance, key aspects of development.