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This article reflects on research carried out by Dr. Nadine Gaab, assistant professor at Boston Children’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.
Written by Professor Paul Boyd at Morningside School of Music, 24th of June 2015.


There has been much research carried out in recent years that supports the argument that music lessons help boost a child’s executive brain function (1). The Public Library of Science Journal has published research that shows that children who have taken part in private 1-2-1 music lessons for over two years show heightened brain activity associated with executive function. Specifically, there is a difference in the process of cognitive function, which allows a person to process and retain information (3), problem solve and regulate their personal behaviour. Dr. Nadine Gaab, a senior study investigator at the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH), explains that executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more that IQ. Nadine goes on to state that her findings have strong educational implications.

While it is already accepted that music lessons relate heavily to the cognitive abilities of learners (2), it must be noted that little research has concentrated specifically on executive functions. The studies that have taken place are limited by the lack of brain measurements.

Nadine and her assistants at BCH looked at 15 children who had been involved in music lessons aged between 9 and 12 years old, and 12 children of the same age who had never had a music lesson. The sample of children who had taken lessons, had done so for over two years in a private 1-2-1 learning environment. On average, the sample of children had been musicians for 5 years and carried out practice at home for around four hours per week, starting around the age of 6 years old. The study also looked at 15 adults who classified themselves as active musicians alongside 15 adults who hadn’t played at all.

It was noted that family demographic factors can play a part in altering whether a child gets private music lessons, so the staff at BCH matched the musician/non-musician groups for parental education, job status and family income. These groups were also matched for IQ, and before undergoing cognitive testing the children had functional MRI imaging of their brains.

Both adults and children who were musically trained, showed enhanced performance in executive brain functioning. On the functional MRI scans, the children who had music lessons showed more enhanced activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex during testing that made them carry out mental tasks. These include the supplementary motor area, the pre-supplementary area and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, all of which are known to be involved in the executive function of the brain.

Gaab stated that the results may have implications for both children and adults who have difficulties with executive brain functioning, such as ADHD or even the elderly. Gaab also reflects that future research must determine whether music may be used as a therapeutic intervention tool for such cases as children with ADHD.

The staff at BCH note that children who do study music may already have executive functioning abilities that somehow attract them to music and predispose them to stick with their music lessons. To establish that musical training influences executive function, and not the other way around, they hope to perform additional studies that follow children over time, assigning them to musical training at random.


This article is a comment on a press release made on the 17th of June 2014 by Dr Nadine Gaab, assistant professor of paediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital.



Academic References:

(1) Kwon, Myoungjin; Gang, Moonhee; Oh, Kyongok. In Asian Nursing Research. December 2013 7(4):168-174 Language: English. DOI: 10.1016/j.anr.2013.09.005, Database: ScienceDirect
(2) Rochette F; Moussard A; Bigand E, Frontiers In Human Neuroscience [Front Hum Neurosci], ISSN: 1662-5161, 2014 Jul 01; Vol. 8, pp. 488; Publisher: Frontiers Research Foundation; PMID: 2507151
(3) Shapiro, Matthew. Hippocampus , Jun2015, Vol. 25 Issue 6, p690-696, 7p. Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..