LONDON – Young children who take music lessons show more advanced brain development and improved memory than those who do not, according to a study published Wednesday.
Researchers claim to have found the first evidence of musical training being linked to greater attention skills.
After a year, musically trained children performed better in a memory test that is correlated with general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, mathematics and IQ, reports a Canadia team.
The researchers add that their results will be welcomed by the teachers and parents who feel that music should be part of the curriculum. The finding, which are backed by brain scans, are published today in the journal Brain by McMaster University’s Institute for Music and the Mind in Hamilton, Ont., and the Rotman Research Institute of the University of Toronto.
“While the greater improvement that we found in musical tasks is not surprising after one year of music lessons, greater improvement on a non-musical memory task in children taking music lessons is very interesting,” said Laurel Trainor, of the McMaster Institute. “Furthermore, our research shows that this occurs in children as young as four years of age.”
Trainor, who led the study with Takako Fujioka, compared 12 children aged four to six years over the course of a year: Six of the children (five boys, one girl) had just started a Suzuki music school; the other six (four boys, two girls) had no music lessons outside school.
The researchers chose the Suzuki method to ensure the children were all trained in the same way, were not selected according to their initial musical talent, and had similar family support.
Brain activity was studied with magnetoencephalography – which measures magnetic fields in the brain – while the children listened to two types of sounds: a violin tone and a white noise burst.
Analysis showed that across all children, larger responses were seen to violin tones than to the white noise, indicating that more brain resources were put to processing meaningful sounds.
In addition, the time that it took for the brain to respond to the sounds decreased over the year. This means that as children matured, the electrical conduction between neurons in their brains worked faster.
Of most interest, the Suzuki children showed a greater change over the year in response to violin tones in a segment of the brain scan related to attention and sound discrimination than did the children not taking music lessons. General memory capacity also improved more in the children studying music.
Trainor said the brain scan finding fits with the large improvement seen in their memory test, which was also statistically significant. “It suggests that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention.”
Fujioka added: “It is clear that music is good for children’s cognitive development and that music should be part of the pre-school and primary school curriculum.”
An earlier study at the University of Toronto, led by Glenn Schellenberg, examined the effect of extra-curricular activities on the intellectual and social development of 144 six-year-old children and also concluded that music improves intellect.
While such previous studies have shown that school-aged children given music lessons show greater improvement in IQ scores than those give drama lessons, Trainor’s study is the first to identify such effects in the brain.