“Being human means we have to interact with the arts”

A recent study underscores the importance of music education in school for enhancing cognitive development
Free-Photos, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
Free-Photos, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Children who studied music at school for more than 2 and a half years may achieve  significant gains in language-based reasoning, planning, attention, and working memory, leading to improved academic performance, according to a study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Artur C. Jaschke, lead author of the study, is assistant professor of music therapy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and ArtEZ University of Applied Sciences. “In many countries, like the Netherlands, Poland, and Denmark, music curriculum has disappeared from schools,” he said. “I hope these findings start a revolution, getting arts back into the classroom.”

Jaschke and colleagues’ work, which involved testing the students every six months, is the first longitudinal study to look at the cognitive gains of arts education.

In their study, the researchers followed 147 5-year-olds chosen from the general population at schools in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht. Participating students were chosen by a third party, and selection was controlled for social and economic background. All schools involved used the same basic primary school curriculum; the arts courses were added.

Some students received structured music lessons as part of their regular schoolwork, others were given visual arts instructions, while another group was taught neither. Classes in the arts used theoretical lessons as well as practical training.

For those children who took music lessons, test scores for inhibition, planning, and verbal intelligence increased significantly over time, compared to the children who received visual arts or no arts training at all.

“The children show a possible far transfer effect from a structured music education program to academic achievement.”

“The results show that children following structured music lessons perform better on tasks measuring verbal IQ, planning, and inhibition when compared to controls during four follow-ups,” according to the study. The children also “show a possible far transfer effect from a structured music education program to academic achievement.”

Meanwhile, the group of children who studied visual arts saw gains in visuospatial memory, but that did not translate into other cognitive skills.

“Yes, you must do planning with visual arts. But when you play music, you use the same networks in the brain that overlap with the networks that do planning, attention, and working memory—all things you need for everyday life,” said Jaschke.

“Music activates multiple networks across the whole brain, linking areas, amongst others, necessary for the executive functioning we use in everyday life.”

Rarely is only one brain region or only one network involved in most tasks, such as making music. Different areas of the brain with distinctly different jobs must be connected to function properly, to hold attention or to make plans. Therefore, music activates multiple networks across the whole brain, linking areas, amongst others, necessary for the executive functioning we use in everyday life.

Another interesting aspect of the study is that students received music instruction on the instrument of their choice and studied music in a variety of genres, from classical to jazz to popular.

“While each instrument involves different motor skills — drummers move differently than trombonists do — all students benefited,” Jaschke said. “It isn’t just the Mozart effect. It could be the Beyonce effect or the John Coltrane effect.”

“We must teach our children art to make their brains happy.”

Jaschke said the study underscores the need for regular music lessons at elementary schools, although educational institutions currently are much more focusing on arithmetic and more academic pursuits. “Being human means we have to interact with the arts,” he said. “This study proves we must teach our children art to make their brains happy.”

Weekly newsletter

Newsletter icon