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Another Brain Benefit of Music Lessons

They help kids develop the ability to disregard potential distractions.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

The term “cognitive inhibition” doesn’t sound particularly attractive, but it describes a vitally important mental process. It refers to our capability to tune out irrelevant information and focus our attention on the matter at hand.

Obviously, this ability to concentrate is more important than ever, in a world where we are constantly beckoned by a wide range of distractions. So how can you help your child develop it?

Newresearch suggests one answer is music lessons.

Belgian researchers report 9- to 12-year-olds who had been taking regular music lessons displayed “enhanced cognitive inhibitory control” compared to a group of same-age peers. Their study, in the journal Musicae Scientiae, adds to the already large body of evidence showing cognitive benefits of musical training.

The study featured 63 Dutch-speaking students from Flanders, ranging in age from 9 1/2 to 11 1/2. Thirty-two of them “had been taking music classes since the age of 5 were younger,” specifically studying the Suzuki method with qualified teachers.

Does cutting music programs still seem like such a great way to balance the budget?

Their parents filled out a form noting how many years they had been playing an instrument, and the average amount of time they spend each day on music training. In addition, they reported the education level of the children’s parents, which was roughly equivalent for the two groups.

To measure inhibitory control, all of the children completed the “Simon task,” in which they were asked to press a certain key when a specific color appeared on a computer screen in front of them.

“Of the trials, 50 percent were congruent, meaning that the position of the circle on the screen matched the position of the required response button,” the researchers explain. “The remaining 50 percent were incongruent, with the position of the circle not matching the position of the required response key.” Participants were scored on whether they pushed the correct buttons, and how long it took them to respond.

The researchers, led by Marie-Eve Joret, found “the magnitude of the congruency effect” was “significantly larger in the control group compared to the music group.” In other words, the young musicians performed significantly better in a task that had nothing to do with music, but required focused attention, quick thinking, and rapid responses.

These superior scores “might be explained by several elements related to music training,” the researchers write. “Playing a musical instrument requires high levels of selective attention. Hence, children need to focus their attention on playing music while ignoring other distracting elements.”

“Furthermore, in the Suzuki method, children often play in groups,” the researchers write. “Thus they might need to ‘ignore’ the sometimes different and possibly distracting parts played by the other musicians to focus on their own part.”

So making music hones the ability to focus and ignore distractions, which can pay enormous dividends in educational settings, and throughout one’s life. School boards and administrators: Does cutting music programs still seem like such a great way to balance the budget?