Updated: Aug 22, 2018
By Rachel Snider
Good news! Those years of forced piano lessons as a kid may actually be paying off! In a recent study on the effects of learning an instrument as a child, researchers Joret, Germeys, and Gidron found evidence that studying music as a child offers a number of cognitive benefits extending into later life.
Specifically, Joret et al. focused on the improvement in inhibitory control – the ability to hold back in a situation when you need to, even though your initial reaction may be to speak or act out. This necessary ability is one example of executive functioning in the brain. Executive functioning refers to the ability of a person’s mind to adapt and be flexible in an organized way while thinking; types of executive functioning include skills like shifting, maintaining selective attention, and, as you and I now know... utilizing inhibitory control.
Cognitive shifting refers to the ability to rapidly change focus to the many individual parts that make up a whole; think about playing soccer where you need to periodically tune in to where your teammates are, where the ball is, where the goal is, and how fast that person is running toward you. When playing an instrument, shifting skills can improve listening for different cues or themes in the music.
Similarly, exercising selective attention refers to the ability to focus on one task while ignoring other distracting stimuli in the surrounding environment. An example of this type of executive function is simply writing an essay in a café; you have to focus on your writing while ignoring the music, conversations, and person across the room flipping their hair too many times. Joret et al. speculated that learning to play music, especially in a group, may improve inhibitory control because you need to be aware of how your actions may influence the sound of the group as a whole.
Previous studies have indicated that general IQ, vocabulary and reading mastery, and academic achievement are higher in those with childhood musical training, but results have been inconclusive for relating these metrics to inhibitory control. Joret et al. speculate this inconclusiveness could be due to small sample sizes in previous studies, less rigorous inclusion criteria for selecting subjects, and/or the utilization of tests that are not appropriate for the age of the subjects. In this study, the researchers tried to ameliorate these factors. They screened for subject age, number of years playing, socio-economic status, and frequency of practice sessions per week. In doing this they hoped to show a clearer relationship between music learning and executive functioning, specifically cognitive inhibition. They had their 9-12 year old subjects complete the Simon task, a standard measure of executive functioning. The task measures the difference in time that it takes for an individual to respond to objects that are the same and objects that are different. This difference is called the “interference effect,” and it can be used as a proxy for the amount of inhibitory control someone has.
In short, what these researchers found is that the children who had musical training demonstrated more inhibitory control, and therefore a better ability to navigate the world around them…potentially. Joret et al. recognized there may be other factors at play such as the possibility that individuals who already possess well-developed executive functions may be more likely to begin learning an instrument, or that it may be the style of learning that has the greatest effect. With this, future research will likely focus on different styles of learning, such as sight-reading versus playing by ear, emphasizing music theory or not, frequency of practicing, and group versus individual instruction. Until those results come in however, it appears safe to be thankful for those early years of piano lessons.
Joret, M. E., Germeys, F., & Gidron, Y. (2017). Cognitive inhibitory control in children
following early childhood music education. Musicae Scientiae, 21(3), 303-315.