Monday, October 20, 2014

Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function


Moreno, S., Bialystoke, E. Barac, R., Schellenberg, G., Cepeda, N. & Chau, T. (2011).      Short-term music training enhances verbal intelligence and executive function. Psychological Science, 22, 1425-1433.


            This study, conducted by Sylvain Moreno and colleagues, examined whether music training in pre-school children affects verbal intelligence (for example, speaking and reading ability). They hypothesized that music training would increase their test scores on verbal intelligence and executive functioning. Executive functioning is a set of mental processes, such as the ability to plan, organize, pay attention, retrieve, and commit experiences to memory.
            The researchers tested 48 children between the ages of 4 and 6 years old; half of the children were given music training and the other half received training in visual art. During the experiment, each child was given a pretest, followed by 20 days of training (either music or visual arts) and then finally a posttest. For the pretest and posttest, the students were given tests that were designed to represent intellectual functioning in verbal and spatial domains.  To test verbal ability, the children were given 25 words arranged in order of increasing difficulty and were asked to explain the meaning of each word.  To test spatial ability, they were given blocks and asked to assemble designs identical to pictures of designs that they were given.  Also a part of the pretest and posttest was a go/no go test (testing reaction/quick thinking time), which helped measure executive function.
After the training period (which lasted 20 days), the researchers found that only the children in the music group demonstrated enhanced performance in verbal intelligence. Additionally, these children showed greater changes in functional brain plasticity over the children who received visual arts training.
            Their findings represent the first demonstration of broad transfer of an educationally vital skill: Training of music skills transfers to verbal ability.  These results demonstrate that verbal performance can be improved with music training, and offer more support for the notion that music and language processes are closely related.
            They also found that the 20 days of music training also led to improved performance in the executive-function task.  This improvement is understandable if one considers that music training requires high levels of control, attention, and memorization. The transfer effect from music training to the executive function task may have been due to an overlap of brain processes (the same areas of the brain were being used in both tasks).
In conclusion, the findings by Moreno and his colleagues demonstrate that music training does allow transfer of high-level cognitive skills to other abilities outside of music in early childhood. This is due to brain plasticity, in which music training appears to be strengthening areas of the brain responsible for verbal intelligence as well.


            This was a very interesting study, with results that I think help support the importance of music training in our schools.  I thought that the study was very well done and carefully planned to insure non-biased results. The only thing I think I would have liked to see done differently would have been a larger sample of participants.  That being said, with it being such a long process and after so many participants dropped out, 48 seems respectable.
            It is exciting that the children in the music group showed much more improvement in tasks of verbal intelligence than the children in the visual-art group. That music training CAN have a positive effect on children’s verbal intelligence and on executive function justifies it’s worth in the education system. Often music education is simply viewed as a ‘fun’ subject with very little educational impact; this study, however, demonstrates that music education may actually help children build on their communication skills, both written and verbal outside of the music classroom.
            I have wondered before whether music is only important to the school system because it offers a creative outlet for children that subjects like math and science do not. However, this study made me realize that there must be something special to music, since the visual arts group (which is also probably creative) did not show as many benefits as the music group.
            This study was conducted with children ages 4-6, but it would be interesting to do this study again with adolescents in high school who are studying in band programs and see how their results would compare to the children’s.  Children’s brains at a young age change very quickly with the environment, but with adolescents, their brains are still developing but not at the same rate. So it might be more substantial if they got the same results with students aged around 15-18 years old. (If anyone knows any particular studies like this, please share!)  
            Nevertheless, this is a great study for music educators, musicians and music enthusiasts to know about and if you don’t, I highly recommend you read it!

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