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Is There a Correlation Between Music and Cognitive Development in Children?

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Published: 10th Dec 2019

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Tagged: ChildcareMusicPsychology

Is There a Correlation Between Music and Cognitive Development in Children?

Table of Contents


Theories on Cognitive Development…………………………………..3

Factors Affecting Cognitive Development…………………………….7

Neural Networks and Music……………………………………………9

  1. Music and Culture……………………………………………….9
  2. Emotional Aspect of Music Cognition…………………………10
  3. General Concepts of Neural Networks…………………………11

Artificial Neural Networks…………………………………………….11

Music – Type of Stimuli Affecting Cognitive Development………….13

Music’s Effect on the Brain in Children………………………………15

The Power of Music: It’s Impact on Intellectual, Social, and Personal Improvement of Children………………………………………………16

  1. Biology of Music……………………………………………….16
  2. Transfer of Learning…………………………………………….19
  3. Perceptual and Language Skills…………………………………19
  4. Literacy…………………………………………………………21
  5. Numeracy……………………………………………………….22
  6. Social and Personal Development………………………………23




Cognitive development during early childhood (from birth to 5 years of age) is key to acquiring skills, including reading, language, vocabulary building, and numeracy. The development a child undergoes early in life is very important, as it’s a determining factor in the level of success they will experience later in life. Music has proven to be strongly correlated to the development of the brain, as active engagement with music has shown to stimulate cortical reorganization causing functional changes as to how the brain processes information. Children who have undergone musical training have better verbal memory, second language pronunciation accuracy, reading ability and executive functions than those who haven’t had musical training. Therefore, there is a strong correlation between music and cognitive development in children.


Theories on Cognitive Development


Development of the brain, especially during early childhood, implies change. Several theories exist to explain cognitive development in children. The most prominent theory is Jean Piaget’s stage theory, which demonstrates a child progressing through qualitatively different stages of development. Other theories on cognitive development include sociocultural theories as well as information processing theories. Even though several theories exist to explain this process, at the heart of all these theories are the importance of nature and nurture in the development of children through distinct stages.

Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory is divided into four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational period. The sensorimotor stage consists of the first two years of an infant’s life. During this stage, the infants use their senses and actions to try to determine their relationship to the world, and through assimilation and accommodation they eventually come to adjust to the world around them. The child culminates this stage with the development of object permanence, which is the awareness that objects exist even when they are hidden from plain sight. Piaget did the famous Blanket and Ball Study to determine around what age a child obtains object permanence. Piaget’s method was to hide a toy (ball) under the blanket, while the child was watching to see if the child would search for the toy, which would indicate that the child acquired object permanence. Results of the experiment showed that children around 8 months had object permanence due to their ability to form a schema (mental representation) of the object in their minds. The second stage of Piaget’s theory is preoperational stage, which begins around the age of two and lasts until the age of seven. The preoperational stage consists of several characteristics that children develop. During the preoperational stage children are unable to distinguish between appearance and reality. For example, children believe that imagined things, such as monsters, are hiding in their room and because of this they are afraid to sleep in their own room. This is due to them being unable to differentiate their imagined ideas to be real or not. In this stage children also develop transductive logic, which is when children make associations between two random events that occur consecutively. For example, when a father receives a phone call and then goes outside of the house the child will make the assumption that the father left the house due to the phone call, when in reality the phone call and the father leaving the house aren’t related at all. Another characteristic that children develop in this stage is animism, where they give life to inanimate objects. For example, they would think the door is mean since it hit them. Also, the logical thinking ability of conservation hasn’t developed in children in the preoperational stage so children can only focus on one aspect and they cannot understand reversible actions.

For example, they wouldn’t be able to distinguish that water poured from a small glass into a larger glass is the same amount of water. Artificialism is another trait of this stage, where children begin to believe that natural occurrences, such as sun and mountains, are man made. Children also develop extreme egocentrism in stage, so they are only able to view situations from their point of view. Piaget used 3 Mountain Problem to illustrate this tendency to be egocentric. A child is seated in front of a model of 3 mountains, which were different in size with different identifiers. The child was allowed to look around the model of the mountains, after that dolls were placed at different vantage points in reference to the child, and the child was shown 10 different photographs. The child was then asked to select the photograph that best reflected the doll’s view. Children in the preoperational stage selected the photograph that best reflected their own view. This proves that children in this stage are egocentric.  The third stage of Piaget’s theory is concrete operational, which lasts from ages seven to twelve. During this stage the child is able to think logically about concrete events using inductive reasoning, which involves forming generalizations from specific experiences. An example of inductive reasoning is thinking that all basketball players are tall; therefore basketball players must be tall. Even though the child may be able to utilize inductive reasoning they are still lacking in deductive reasoning, so they are unable to use a general principle to predict the outcome of a specific event. For example, if X=Y and Y=Z they would struggle to understand the idea that X=Z. A significant development in this stage is the concept of reversibility, which is the ability to think about a problem in a specific order and be able to go backwards and return to the starting point. For example, a child knows that multiplication and division are reversible operations, so when you know that 4 x 3 = 12, you also know that 12 / 3 = 4. This is also the stage children acquire understanding of the concept of conservation. So when something changes in appearance or shape they will be able to comprehend that it’s still the same amount. Also, during this stage egocentrism that was evident in the previous stage disappears. Children are able to take into account the perspective of others, and they are able to think about how other people perceive them. The final stage of Piaget’s theory is formal operational stage, which is starting from age twelve into adulthood. At this stage children further develop skills of logical thought using deductive reasoning, which is required in science and mathematics to deal with hypothetical situations and concepts. In addition to thinking concretely, children in stage are able to think abstractly, as they can now think about possible outcomes and consequences of actions. They begin to frequently ponder about “what-if” type of situations and come up with several possible outcomes. They also develop problem-solving skills using trial and error method. They have the ability to solve problems in a methodical way. This is also the stage where children develop metacognition, or the ability to think about their thoughts as well as ideas of others.

The one area that was missing from Piaget’s theory was the sociocultural influence on cognitive development. Lev Vygotsky proposed that the fundamental part of children’s cognitive development is through interaction with members of their culture, such as parents, teachers, siblings, and peers. Vygotsky believed that by internalization of social processes, such as interacting with the more able members of the society, a child could learn to do things that they weren’t able to do on their own. According Vygotsky children are born with innate abilities called elementary mental functions: perception, attention, memory, and when the children interact with others they develop increasingly complex cognitive abilities called higher mental functions, which include the use of graphs, number systems, mnemonic strategies, and language. Vygotsky came up with the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is the difference concerning what a learner can do without help and what he/ she can do with help. The amount of assistance provided by adult is critical to the cognitive development of children working in the zone of proximal development. The level of assistance should just beyond the child’s existing developmental level to provide a challenge for the child, and as the child progresses the adult should provide less assistance. Sociocultural theorists have modified ZPD into the new concept of scaffolding. Scaffolding is characterized by six features suggesting methods of providing assistance to children: boosting the child’s interest in task, simplifying the task for the child, making sure the child is in pursuit of a particular objective, marking significant features of task, managing the child’s frustration level during the problem solving, and explaining the solutions the child has partly completed. Vygotsky’s work has been employed in a classroom setting, as can be seen from the works of Ann Brown and her colleagues, who developed idea of community learners. In this setting children and adults work together to on a shared activity, and children get to learn from both their peers as well as the teacher, who mainly serves to facilitate the learning process.

A final approach to cognitive development is information processing theories. These theories state that thinking is information processing. Analogous to a computer processing information through application of logical use, cognitive development is seen as a result of a change in the hardware (the brain) or change in the software (children acquiring new knowledge). Steven Atkinson and Steve Shiffrin’s modal model of human information processing (1968) is the most influential model for cognitive development used to explain how memory processes work. The model indicates that the human memory is composed of three different components: sensory register, short-term store, and long-term store.  Sensory registers or sensory memory is comprised of multiple registers, one for each sense. These registers detect the environmental stimulus and the information is transferred to the short-term memory when attention is given to it otherwise it decays rapidly. For this reason they are known as “buffers” as they prevent overwhelming the higher-level cognitive processes with immense amount of information. If information is attended to, it is transferred to the short-term store of Atkinson-Shiffrin model. The duration of this stage is 15 to 30 seconds with the capacity to hold 7 (plus or minus 2) items. Information is transferred from the short-term store to the long-term store if the information attended to is rehearsed which allows for retrieval when the information is needed later, and if it’s not rehearsed the information just decays from the short-term store.

Factors Affecting Cognitive Development


The brain’s development are not only associated with intellectual capacities but also by many other factors, including environmental stress, sensory development, nutrition, stimuli, and genetics. A child’s home environment has long-term effects on their well- being. Brain imaging research shows that children growing in a disadvantaged environment develop differently. Family income and socio-economic standing have powerful effect on child’s development. Children from low-income families are likely to be surrounded by chaos and poverty then that can lead to risk factors such as changes in the brain’s stress system thereby increasing the child’s vulnerability to chronic diseases later in life. Also, mothers of low-income families are on average less affectionate, less responsive to their children’s distress signals, and more likely to be harsh in parenting style. If children spent their first three years in such an environment where they lack cognitive stimulation, they’re more likely to have poorer language development by age three, later behavior problems, deficits in school readiness, become prone to aggression, anxiety and depression, and have impaired cognitive development at age three. An ongoing study called The Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood (CANDLE) includes 1500 Shelby County women and their children starting from 2nd trimester to when they are three years old. They have collected data on the correlation between low income, low maternal education, and maternal depression. Their study includes 55.3% of families that have annual incomes below $25,000, and 17% of these families have mothers that have less than a high school education. Also, 11.2% of mothers from these families have been found to be at risk of depression 4 weeks after pregnancy, and when tested again 12 months later 10.7% of mothers scored at risk. The study preliminary findings proved that economic hardships, low education, and maternal depression are all threats to a child’s development.

Children also need to be exposed to sensory stimulations because right after birth, the infants brain starts to make over trillion neuron synapses used to transmits information based on various life experiences through hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting. The more frequently neuron synapses are used the more they retain information and become stronger.  “A newborn baby is functionally blind, deaf, and insensate,” according to Janet Doman, one of the authors of How Smart is your Baby: Develop and Nurture your Newborn’s Full Potential. Doman believes that it’s the function of parents to use sensory stimulation to develop the sensory pathways of their baby to lead to proper brain development.

Another factor that affects cognitive development is malnutrition experienced in early childhood. Animal studies have proved that malnutrition could lead to a decrease in brain volume, number of neurons, synapses, dendrites and reactive zones. After the animal subjects were given nutritional rehabilitation even though there was an increase in brain’s weight and volume, there was a reduction in number of dendritic and synaptic spines and cortical cells – important in cell-to-cell communication. Problems in malnourished children include impulsiveness, diminished ability to adapt to stressful situations, susceptibility to anxiety, and diminished motivation, all of which leads to impaired school performance.  Overall, nutrition has a very important effect on cognitive development in children.

Cognitive stimulation via reading books to children, using toys to teach colors, numbers, and letters as well as playing real or toy musical instruments are all important for the proper development of children. Martha Farah, director of the center for neuroscience and society at the University of Pennsylvania, led a study to find out how a normal range of experiences in childhood might influence the development of the brain. Farah’s results proved that there is the existence of a sensitive period, early in a person’s life, that determined the optimal development of the cortex. Her results showed that the development of the cortex in late teens was closely correlated with a child’s cognitive stimulation at the age of four. All other factors including parental nurturance at all ages and cognitive stimulation at age eight – had no effect.

Genetics is relevant to the cognitive development of children, particularly in the case of infants with developmental disabilities and health problems. Children with genetically based intellectual deficits, such as attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder, are limited in their capacities to develop some skills. Early intervention and a nurturing environment can counterpoise some of these difficulties.


Neural Networks and Music


“Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” by novelist Charles P. Snow was an extremely influential lecture that discussed the divide between 2 cultures: sciences and humanities. Snow’s “third culture” theory provides a practical application to learn more about the neural networks ability to stimulate. Third culture will not only breach the gap between the two cultures, but also revel in an enhanced and comprehensive view of the world.

Music and Culture

Many individuals, including the author of “This is Your Brain on Music” Levitin believes that music has evolved concurrently with the language of our species, and is derivable to our higher development. Donald Brown, in his book “Human Universals,” dedicated a large section to music as one of the aspects that are considered to be prevalent across cultures. It included universals such as children’s music, musical variation, musical redundancy, music as seen in art, music associated to social functions and music as a religious activity. So, from a cultural perspective music seems to be of great significance. Musical activities activate an area in nearly every part of the brain, and it is this fact that provides support to the notion that music has developed with the human race. Creative constructs, such as musical abilities, have the power to concurrently stimulate several cortical areas of the brain, and this could help foster stronger pervasive bonds between the stimulated neurons.

Emotional Aspect of Music Cognition

In William Thompson’s book “Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music” he claims of the emotional effects of music on the limbic system and the cortical system, and that pleasant music activates parietal, frontal, and temporal lobes. So, he concluded that there seem to be an emotional aspect to music cognition. To confirm this conclusion a study was conducted in 2009 to see if a music key and tempo had the potential to alter a person’s effect. In this study a portion of music was played in distinctive ways – major key/fast tempo, major key/slow tempo, minor key/fast tempo, minor key/slow tempo. Participants listened to the music in one of the four pieces as they read an intentionally equivocal story, and then they were asked to describe the character in the story in terms of their mood and state of being. Results revealed that participants listening to song in major key perceived the character as happy, whereas those that heard the song in minor key described the character as being sad. This study implies music has the ability to alter our emotional state. This concept is closely connected to the ideas of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. The survival of a species is dependent on their capability to engage in groups. Music aids to concurrently engage individuals in rhythmic activity such as marching or clapping. In 1995 Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, asked several men and women why they felt music to be important in their lives. Around 70% of both sexes responded that it was “because it elicits emotions and feelings,” or “to alleviate boredom.” Through her study it was found that music with a rapid beat, and written in a major key, interrelated with the induction of happiness. A slow beat and a minor key induced sadness, and a rapid beat combined with dissonance, harsh musical effect, prompted fear. To comprehend this result better Robert Zatorre and Anne Blood have used PET scanning to study the emotional effects of music to the middle of the brain. It was observed that when people heard dissonance in the music, areas of their limbic systems liable for unpleasant emotions lit up; also the volunteers used negative adjectives to describe their feelings. The consonant music, aroused parts of the limbic system associated with pleasure, and the subjects’ feelings were indisputably positive. Dr. Peretz so far of the fundamental nature of music’s effects on the emotions has done the most captivating study. Through associating with Ms. R, a woman who has suffered an unusual form of brain damage, Dr. Peretz was able to run a test in which she compared the subject’s emotional reactions to music with those of a control group of women whose temporal lobes were intact. Ms. R failed to recognize any of the melodies played to her, though they were repeated many times. Nor could she consciously detect changes in pitch. But she could still feel emotion—a fact established by manipulating the pitch, the beat and the major or minor nature of the key of the various pieces of music being played, and linking her reactions to the altered tunes with those of the control group.

General Concept of Neural Networks

Neural networks can be studied through artificial neural networks, whose purpose is to be founded on neural principles in order to stimulate varying levels of perceptual and cognitive processing. Back propagation (connectionism) functions as a mechanism that identifies and tries to correct errors within the network by altering specific weights to apt to constraint. Interconnectivity is vital, as it is the basis of neural networks. The interaction of several nodes in network produces an output that is greater than what would’ve produced by the nodes individually. Kohonen algorithm is used to provide a concise and effective way of discussing algorithmic musical network.

Artificial Neural Networks  


Artificial neural networks (ANN) or connectionist systems are a computational model used in research disciplines, which are based on a large compendium of simple neural units, loosely akin to the observed behavior of the biological brain’s axon. Theoretical and computational neuroscience is field that manages the analysis of neural systems, and since the neural system pertains to cognitive behavior and processes, the field is related to cognitive and behavioral modeling. Models used in this field include models of short-term behavior of distinctive neurons, models of neural circuitry from interaction of distinctive neurons, models of how behavior can arise from intangible neural modules – includes models of long term and short term malleability, of neural systems and their responses to learning and memory from individual neuron to the system level. In sparely dispersed memory of the patterns encoded by the neural networks are used as memory addresses for content-addressable memory, with neurons fundamentally allocating address encoders and decoders. Recently, semantic hashing where a deep graphical model of word-count vectors is taken from a large set of documents has been attested to be beneficial in deep learning.

Viewing music from a cognitive perspective allows us to examine the unconventional function of the neural networks. One such individual is Petri Toiviainen, professor of musicology at University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, who has centralized his academic research career exclusively on abilities of neural networks to model music cognition, it’s a very specific area of study and is therefore underrepresented. Toiviainen’s research provides an appealing affirmation that artificial neural networks can precisely and effectively serve to model aspects of music.

Toiviainen’s study is on tonal hierarchy within the Western twelve-tone chromatic scale. He utilized neural network to recognize and classify notes in bebop-style jazz improvisation. Improvisation is a favorite of musicologists because of its random nature. Computer stimulation can model this by randomly allocating weight vales across the network. Toiviainen is concerned with the skill of neural network to detect a sense of tonal hierarchy within the same music. Tonal hierarchy is the human’s purposeful organization of notes in order of their importance. He created a network trained to recognize jazz melodies: by strengthening connections between the active neurons of the auto-associator. This idea is concurrent with concepts relevant to general types of neural networks. Toiviainen indicates that there is a clear tendency of network to emphasize notes in a scale depending on there tonal function. Music that utilizes a significant amount of unimportant notes, such as C# and G#, is perceived as unpleasant. This is because the general architecture of the auditory cortex, and the listeners expectation.


Music – Type of Stimuli Affecting Cognitive Development


Temporarily listening to music is proven to enhance spatial reasoning – this phenomenon is known as the Mozart effect. Researchers have conducted two meta-analysis studies to test the correlation between music and spatial task performance. They found evidence for the Mozart Effect, but its limited to spatial temporal tasks, which require mental rotation in the absence of physical model. The first meta-analysis, including 36 independent experiments with 2,465 subjects, demonstrated that listening to music enhances performance on spatial temporal tasks versus non-spatial temporal tasks. The mean effect was considered to be small and robust. The second meta-analysis included 31 experiments using only spatial temporal outcomes with a total of 2,089 subjects. The results found that music enhanced performance on spatial-temporal tasks, with a medium and robust mean effect size. Additionally, in 1993, researchers at University of California Irvine found that 36 undergraduate students improved their spatial temporal intelligence after 10 minutes of listening to Mozart Sonata. The students IQ improved by 8 – 9 points and this effect lasted for approximately 10 – 15 minutes.

Musical training has gained more interest in education as increasing neuroscientific research proves its positive result on cognitive development. For example, children that have undergone musical training explicate better second language pronunciation accuracy, verbal memory, reading skill and executive functions. The effect of cognitive development depends on the timing of musical induction due to sensitive periods during development as well as other variables. Psychologist Dr. Agnes Chan led an experiment with a team of group of 90 schoolboys, aged 6 to 15. Half of the group of schoolboys received music training in their school’s string orchestra for between one and five years, while the other half received no training. In order to test verbal memory, lists of words were read to the boys and they were asked to remember as many as possible 10 minutes after the test, and then 30 minutes afterwards. Each student was tested three times. The team found that students with musical training remembered considerably more words than the untrained students. After 30 minutes, they still recalled more words than the control group. There was also a positive correlation between the length of time the students had been learning and how well they remembered the words: the longer they had been in training, the more words they recalled. The result is similar to 1998 study by the same researchers of 60 female students at University of Hong Kong. In this group half of who had at least six years of musical training and the other half with no training. All the girls in study were given verbal and visual memory tests. On the verbal test, the musical students steadily out-scored the others by an average of 16%. Learning music arouses the left temporal lobe, which processes auditory input. This emboldens the development of a part of the left temporal lobe called the planum temporale, which is responsible for verbal memory. In this way, verbal memory training happens as a sort of ‘by-product’ of musical training. The motivation, incentive, and social context of musical education serve as aspects that affect long-term benefits of musical training. Also, the concept of rhythmic entertainment represents an apparatus supporting learning as it refines temporal processing and orienting of attention. This may be what leads to future enhancements in reading and verbal memory. Therefore, music training spawns near and far effects, preparing children for an array of skills, promoting cognitive development. Correlational studies of children taking music training steadily shows they perform better in areas related with music, such as fine motor skills, rhythmic insight and auditory discrimination. There’s evidence to suggest near-transfer effect (involves tasks that are procedural in nature, or tasks that are applied in the same order) of these abilities to phoneme discrimination, and far-transfer effect (involves skills and knowledge being applied in situations that change) to vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning subsets of general intelligence tests. Whereas near-transfer effect is often perceived through several training programs, far-transfer is extremely difficult to stimulate and has been observed only after challenging multi-skills training. The far-transfer effects in domains of verbal intelligence and executive functions may result in better academic performance.

Music’s Effect on the Brain in Children


Neural development is multifaceted with the several neural processes affecting plasticity – synaptic propagation, pruning, and myelination at neurofilament and neurotransmitter levels, each with its own developmental trajectories. Studies of music learning are consistent with animal literature, signifying greater plastic changes in brain for behaviorally relevant than for inert disclosure to auditory stimuli. However, the maturational dynamics of the brain needs to be accounted for through the notion of critical and sensitive periods to understand musical training-induced neuroplasticity. These sensitive periods serve as “windows of opportunity” which puts a limit of the training-related brain plasticity and explains why certain abilities can only be developed early childhood.

“Sensitive period” refers to the limited period of time in development when the impact of experiences on brain is unusually robust, resultant from the property of particular malleability of the neural circuits. During this period the rudimentary architecture of neural circuit is laid out and all the plasticity that occurs after this period will only cause alterations within the connectivity patterns constraint by the “architecture.” The sensitivity period inception and extent is determined not only by age but also by experience. Due to this fact, an enriched environment may serve to lengthen sensitive periods. In contrast, critical periods are exact time windows during which experience stipulates information that is vital for normal development and if they aren’t utilized they could permanently alter performance. An example of sensitive period is the fact that second language proficiency is better in individuals who have been exposed to it by age 11 – 13, which is the age that marks the ends of sensitive period for language learning. An example of critical period would be that of the auditory cortex plasticity by age 3 – 4. Sensory deprivation in that time period can lead to problems with sensory discrimination and oral language learning, which are essential for normal development. Musical training in childhood has a different impact on brain plasticity depending on the age the training commenced on. In addition to this, many scholars note, that motivation and attention is important in learning.

In musical training, the age of commencement determines the plastic changes that take place in the cortical and subcortical structures of the auditory system and the sensory motor system and their functional expression. Musical training is postulated to accelerate the development of the neurofilament in the upper cortical layers underlying the synchronized and fast firing of neurons, which occur between ages 6 and 12. Two longitudinal studies were conducted on children (age 5 – 9) to see the influence musical training had on behavioral and brain activity. For this study 50 children were about to commence their musical training and they are going to compare to a control group of 25 children with similar age, socioeconomic backgrounds and IQ. Tests were conducted for 14 months and the results revealed that musical training significantly enhanced the scores in fine motor skills and auditory discrimination of the instrumental group when compared to the control group. Conversely, no substantial modifications in gray or white matter volume nor transfer effects in domains of verbal, visual, and math were established, but the difference in scores suggested that the musically trained instrumental group was heading the right direction. Another study done on 2 groups of 6 year olds, with one group that took keyboard lesson and another group that took group music lessons. The children that took keyboard lessons showed greater voxel size in motor brain areas such as the motor hand area, and the midbody of the corpus callosum, and the right primary auditory region. However, the structural brain difference didn’t correlate with improvement in behavioral performances. This evidence advocates that regular musical training can stimulate structural changes in the brain, only during the sensitive period.

The Power of Music: It’s Impact on Intellectual, Social, and Personal Improvement of Children

Biology of Music

The human brain entails 100 billion neurons, with a substantial proportion that is active concurrently. Information processing is undertaken through interactions between these neurons, with each of the neurons having nearly a thousand connections with other neurons. When humans’ process information synaptogenesis ensues: alterations in the growth of the axon and dendrites and the number of synapses linking neurons. When an occurrence is repeated amply or considered to be of importance, the synapses and neurons fire repeatedly designating that this occurrence is worth remembering. Consequently, changes in the efficiency of the existing connections are made. As learning continues and specific activities are engaged with, myelination takes place over time. Myelination is the process that involves an increase in the coating of the axon of each neuron, which improves insulation and makes the already established connections more effective. When learning, pruning also occurs: process that decreases the number of synaptic connections, allowing fine-tuning of effectiveness. Through these processes the cerebral cortex self-organizes itself in response to external stimuli and the individual’s learning activities.

Extensive dynamic rendezvous with music prompts cortical re-organization yielding functional changes in how the brain processes information. If this ensues early in development the modifications may become hard-wired and yield enduring changes in the way information is processed. However, permanent and substantial reformation of brain functioning takes a significant amount of time. In Western classical musicians, extensive years of active engagement with specific musical activities are associated with an surge in the neuronal representation exclusive for processing of tones of the musical scale. The largest cortical representations are discovered in musicians that have been playing musical instruments for an extensive period of time. Changes that take place in the brain are also correlated with the type of musical learning that is undertaken. In string players, the processing of pitch is portrayed by longer surveillance and more frontally disseminated event-related brain potentials attention. String players have greater somatosensory representations of finger activity, when compared with non-musicians. Drummers are known to have more complex memory traces of temporal organizations of musical sequences and conductors display greater surveillance of auditory spaces. This distinctly shows that the brain develops in very particular ways in response to specific learning activities, and the extent of the alteration is contingent on the length of time affianced with learning.

Nina Kraus, lead author of the Nature perspective, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, claimed that effect of music training on the nervous system has strong insinuations for education. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s aptitude to adapt over the course of a persons life as they increasingly experience new things and train. The neuroplasticity model done by Kraus suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other characteristics of human communication. Kraus suggests, “An active rendezvous with music will not only enhance neuroplasticity, but also enable the nervous system to provide stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns so important to learning.” Playing an instrument primes the brain to select what is pertinent in a complex process that may include reading or remembering a score, timing issue, and coordination with other musicians. In a musicians brain there exists harmonious interrelationship between sensory and cognitive processes as the nervous system makes relations between complex sounds and what they mean. Musicians are more effective in integrating sound patterns for a new language into words. Children musically trained have stronger neural initiation to pitch changes in speech and boosted vocabulary and reading aptitude. Children with learning disabilities are specifically susceptible to detrimental effects of background noises, music training reinforces the same neural processes that are discrepant in these individuals with developmental dyslexia or who has difficulty hearing speech in noise. The effect of music training is analogous to physical exercise and its positive effect on body fitness. Music is a source that fine-tunes the brain for acoustic fitness.

Ways that we learn is also reflected in particular brain activity. For example, when students between the age of 13 and 15 were trained to judge symmetrically arranged musical phrases as balanced or unbalanced using conventional instructions about the differences: verbal instruction, visual aids, playing musical examples, or participated in musical experiences: singing, playing, improvising, activity in distinctive brain areas are observed. Practices employed in the acquisition of specific musical skills have direct impact on brain development. As individuals engage with different musical activities over an extensive period of time permanent vicissitudes occur to the brain. These changes reflect what has been learned and how it has been learned. They will also impact the extent to which established skills are able to transfer to other undertakings.

Transfer of Learning

Transfer of learning from one domain to another domain is dependent on the correspondences between the processes involved, and the degree to which they share cognitive processes. According to Salomon and Perkins, transfer can be near (low road transfers) or far (high road transfers) with near being more likely to occur. Low road transfers are automated skills and are reasonably unprompted and automatic. An example is in music and language, using the same skills to read different music. High road transfers are a bit more complex as they require reflection and cognizant processing. So, essentially you are adopting similar skills in solving different problems. An example is musical skills being transferred with the perceptual processing of sound (temporal, pitch, rule governed assigning information to groups), fine motor abilities, emotional sensitivity, conceptions of relationships between material and sound (reading music), and memorization of extended information (music).

Perceptual and Language Skills

Music has long been regarded as effective means for children to develop their listening skills in schools, as well as to children with learning difficulties. When humans listen to music or speech, we gather an enormous amount of information swiftly without us consciously noticing it, and the ease with which we do it depends on our prior experience with music and language. The knowledge is embedded, learned through exposure to specific environments, and applied naturally when we listen to music or speech. One of the ingredients necessary for transfer of learning from musical experience to language skills is the overlay between the processes essential to the perception and production of language and music. The abilities and neural functions that have been shown to be fundamental for reading: phonological awareness, speech-in-noise perception, rhythm perception, auditory working memory, and sound pattern acquiring. All of these processes have enhanced by musical training. Therefore, musical experiences enhance processing of perception of language, which in turn impacts reading abilities.

Musical training hones brain’s early encrypting of sound leading to augmented performance improving skill to differentiate between briskly changing sounds and boosting auditory discernment. This has an impact on the cortical processing of linguistic pitch patterns. Influence of musical training is seen in a study conducted on children aged 4 – 6. They were provided with musical training 25 minutes for 7 weeks and their brain activity was measured and compared with brain activity of the controls. The children that received musical training showed EEG frequencies associated with amplified cognitive processing. Playing musical instruments activates reformations in the brainstem, not only the cortex. Musicians were found to have earlier brainstem responses to onset of a syllable than non-musicians and those who have played since the age of 5 have rapider reactions and amplified activity of neurons in brain to music and speech sounds. Also, another study has found correspondence between the performance of first grade students on assessments of phonemic and musical pitch cognizance. Musical abilities allow perceiving and producing subtle phonetic contrasts in a second language and reading abilities of children in their first language. This explains the first graders ability to perceive minimal differences in phonemes, which depends on ability to obtain information about the frequencies of the speech sounds. Musical skills also augment the ability to interpret affective speech rhythms, as speech uses structural auditory patterns not based on pitch but the differences between phonemes. Another study conducted on preschoolers found a connection between musical abilities and phonological awareness and reading improvement. Gromko did the study on kindergarteners that had four months of musical training for thirty minutes each week. The training consisted of many activities such as kinesthetic movement and music making to accentuate steady beats, rhythm and pitch, and connection amongst sounds and symbols. The children that received the training showed a considerably greater consciousness for phonetics when compared with the control group. Learning to discern between the tonal and the rhythmic pattern and to connect their perceptions with visual symbols seems to have transmuted to enhanced phonemic awareness.


The function of music facilitating language subsidizes the development of reading skills. A study was conducted on 7 – 8 year olds over a period of six months to develop auditory, visual, and motor skills through musical instruction. The study found that the mean reading score of the experimental group amplified while those of the control group did not. Phonological knowledge is linked to early reading skills in 4 – 5 year olds and there seems to be a moderate relationship between tonal memory and reading age. However, finding beats in a musical piece hasn’t been substantiated on any grounds as a noteworthy predictor of reading in 3rd and 4th graders. Some studies have found no correlation in children receiving musical training and control, but these variances could be attributed to the children’s previous and present musical experiences and their already developed reading ability. If language skills are already developed, musical activity should focus on reading musical notation for transfer to occur in relation to reading. For example, Piro and Ortiz did a study focusing on the effect of learning piano on the development of vocabulary and verbal sequencing in second grade children. In this study forty-six children that piano for three years were compared with fifty-seven children, who were controls. At the end of the study, the children that were learning piano showed considerably greater vocabulary and better verbal sequencing scores.

Studies have also shown that music positively affects children experiencing difficulty reading.  Nicholson on students between 6 – 8 years old who are categorized as slow learners conducted a study. After musical training the group of slow learners showed significantly higher reading scores: scoring in 88th percentile rather than the 72nd percentile. Even the following year, after additional musical training the slow learners continued to have reading scores superior to the control group. An important factor in reading development seems to be rhythmic performance Atterbury, through his study, found children 7-9, who are reading-disabled, could discriminate rhyme patterns as well as controls but were poorer in rhythmic performance and tonal memory than normal readers. It’s found that brief training, about 10 minutes each week for 6 weeks, in clapping, stamping, and chanting to a piece of music while adhering too simple musical notation had impact on reading comprehension in children with difficulty reading. One way in which music instruction may help reading in addition to those connecting to more general perception, timing and language skills is that increases verbal memory. It’s been substantiated that learning a musical instrument heightened the ability to remember words. Musicians have enlarged left cranial temporal region of the brain. Participants in study with musical training could remember 17% more verbal information that those without musical training. Those with musical training had drastically better verbal learning and retention abilities, furthermore, the longer extent of music training the better the verbal memory.


In general, there has been consensus that there is a strong association between music and mathematics. Musicians playing from notation are required to adopt quasi-mathematical processes to sub-divide beats and turn rhythmic notation to sound. Transfer using this ability allows for better mathematic skills. A recent study showed children receiving instruction on rhythm instruments scored higher on part-whole math problems. In a study conducted on preschool children to see if there is a correlation between music and mathematical achievement, children involved in musical activities scored higher on mathematical achievement test than the control group. Amongst these children with the high scores, those who have been participating in the musical activities for the longest time have the highest overall score. A study using a national US database displayed positive effects associated with engagement in music. However, in study conducted by Rafferty it was found that Music-Spatial-Temporal Math Program had no effect on the mathematic achievement of second graders. Cheek and Smith decided to delve into this issue more to see if the type of music training is related to mathematical achievement. Their study showed that those who had two or more years of private lessons had had significantly higher scores, while those learning keyboard instruments had higher scores than those learning other instruments. Another study showed that the length of involvement in musical activities determines the level of mathematical skills gained. Those involved in musical instruction for the longest time showed the greatest gains. Overall, the evidence suggests that music can improve mathematical performance, but the kinds of musical training needed for effect and the length of time engaged in the activity are all factors that need to be accounted for.

Social and Personal Development

Broh, in his study showed that students who partook in musical activities conversed more with parents and teachers, and they were more likely to talk with friends’ parents. Broh resolved that social benefits from musical activities were likely to lead to higher self-esteem in children and increased drive and self-efficacy. A study led by the Norwegian Research Council for Science and Humanities found a linkage between musical capability and high motivation, leading to greater success in high school. There was a high association between positive self-perception, cognitive competence score, self-esteem, and interest and involvement in music. Another researcher, Whitwell, drew a similar conclusion and argued that participation in music improves self-image, self- awareness and creates a positive self-attitude. Research in Switzerland displayed that increasing the amount of music in their curriculum increased social cohesion within the class, leading to greater self-reliance, better social adjustment, and more positive mindsets in the children. There was a variation in response to music being brought into the school curriculum. Some students perceived benefits of music classes in being able to listen to music and develop skills while others claimed that the therapeutic nature of music facilitated group work and gave them confidence to express themselves.


Extensive research on music and it’s relation to cognition and how it develops the brain has led to the conclusion that music does positively affect the cognitive development of children helping them to develop in various areas, including perceptual and language skills, literacy, numeracy (mathematics), as well as social and personal development. This happens through transferring, which is when abilities learned through musical instruction, are applied to practical situations. High quality childhood educational environment can positively affect child development and the same can be said about musical experience at a young age that is developmentally responsive and sequences in complexity.





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