Music and Executive Function

The next time one of your students complains about having to practice the piano, just tell them that they are also boosting their executive function processes. That should do the trick, right?

Learning to play an instrument can have a big impact on brain development according to a study done by psychologists Katherine Sledge Moore and Pinar Gupse Oguz of Arcadia University, and Jim Meyer of Elmhurst College.

The study tested  72 college students arranged in three groups: musical experts with at least ten years of experience, musical amateurs with at least one year of training, and non-musicians.

The study’s results confirmed that musical training can boost the brain’s abilities. Musicians scored significantly better in areas such as attention, working memory, and even processing speed. The benefits were more marked in the musical experts category, but musical amateurs outperformed non-musicians as well.

It makes sense that music would lead to improved executive function since playing classical music is a task with high executive function demands. The very act of learning how to read music notes and translate what you have read into sound through intentional movement requires thinking flexibly, organizing, prioritizing, and self-monitoring. Add in the complexity of playing with a whole orchestra, and you have a multi-faceted and multi-sensory executive function workout.

While not many of our students have the time, or perhaps the motivation, to endure the full decade of musical training it would take to be classified as a musical expert in this study, it is encouraging that the brain benefits were also seen for students with one year of training. This underscores the importance of making the arts available to our students, especially in years where executive function development is at its peak.

For students who have little to no interest in music, there are certainly other ways that extracurricular tasks can boost executive function. Sports that require intentional and strategic movement, such as tennis, martial arts, or soccer, have also been shown to improve executive function.

The overall message is that we as educators need to help our students engage with the world in a way that trains their brain to develop the skills they will need to be flexible thinkers in their adult lives. By helping students pursue complex tasks such as classical music, we are helping them to train their brain for future success.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director