Evidence has been building that music lessons boost students' cognitive skills, helping them excel at a wide range of academic subjects. While many studies point in that direction, others are more cautionary, suggesting smarter, more motivated kids may simply choose to take up an instrument.
New research from the Netherlands won't end the debate, but it provides solid evidence that instruction in rhythm, melody, and harmony truly has a positive effect on developing brains.
Researchers followed 147 Dutch schoolchildren — half of whom took supplemental music-education classes along with their regular curriculum — for over two years, beginning at age 6.
"Children who received music lessons showed improved language-based reasoning, and the ability to plan, organize, and complete tasks, as well as improved academic achievement," lead author Artur Jaschke of VU University of Amsterdam said in announcing the findings. "This suggests that the cognitive skills developed during music lessons can influence children's cognitive abilities in completely unrelated subjects, leading to overall improved academic performance."
The young participants were divided into four groups: two that received structured music lessons, one that received visual arts instruction, and one that received no special training.
The weekly music lessons were one to two hours long, and were incorporated into the kids' regular school day. Instructors used a structured, carefully designed curriculum that began by introducing "melody, meter, and rhythm," before moving on to a combination of music theory classes and practical lessons on instruments chosen by the children themselves.
The visual-arts group "received general lessons in painting, sculpting, and art history," with a focus on "the practical application of skills contributing to the creation of visual art."
All the kids took a series of tests every six months to monitor their intellectual development. These measured such markers as working memory, the ability to plan, and the ability to refrain from acting impulsively. They also took a Verbal IQ test that included general-knowledge questions, vocabulary definitions, and comprehension of common concepts.
"The results show that children following structured music lessons perform better on tasks measuring verbal IQ, planning, and inhibition" compared to the other two groups, the researchers write.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the kids who studied visual arts performed better than their peers on "visuospatial memory," meaning they could better recall the precise location of dots on a matrix. But they did not experience the wide-ranging cognitive growth of the music students.
While noting that this study did not involve brain scans, the researchers allude to previous work that's found music practice, over time, increases connectivity between different parts of the brain.
"As a byproduct (of music lessons), overlapping prefrontal cortex structures associated with inhibition and planning also improve," they write, arguing this is the likely catalyst for the music students' superior test scores.
Jaschke said the study was inspired by the fact that "music is disappearing from general education curricula" in many countries (the Netherlands being a notable exception). He hopes its encouraging results "will support political developments to reintegrate music and arts education into schools around the world."
Until that happens, parents should know that piano lessons are a great investment in their kids' future, regardless of whether they choose music as a career.
This story originally appeared as There's new evidence that music lessons boost kids' cognitive skills on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.