Effects of Instrumental Music Training on Brain and Cognitive Development in Young Children: A Longitudinal Study

Ellen Winner, Ph.D.

Boston College, Boston, MA

Grant Program:

David Mahoney Neuroimaging Program

Funded in:

June 2005, for 3 years

Funding Amount:


Lay Summary

Using Imaging to See if Music Training Transfers Advantages to Other Cognitive Functions

Boston College researchers will use MRI and fMRI imaging to assess the effects of music training on cognition and investigate whether skills acquired in music training transfer to other cognitive functions, such as mathematical and verbal performances.

Dr. Winner and colleagues have been studying children aged five to seven for the previous two and a half years.  One group received music training, while a comparable group, based on verbal IQ scores, did not, enabling the researchers to determine the cognitive effects of music training.  Among children receiving music training, some had been taught to the piano or violin “by ear,” (the Suzuki method), while the others had been taught to play the piano or violin by reading music notation.  Prior to music training, all children received fMRI scans.  They also were tested and showed no differences in, visual-spatial, mathematical, verbal, dexterity, or music perception skills.  After one year, children receiving music training have shown greater growth in manual dexterity and music perception skills.

Now, with Dana funding, the investigators will continue to follow the music training and control groups for two more years to determine the effect of intensity of music training on brain and cognitive skills.  They hypothesize that a high level of music notation training predicts a high degree of transfer of skills from music to visual-spatial, mathematical, and verbal tasks.  To test this hypothesis, the investigators will identify the children who show the most talent and test their cognitive skills.  These children will undergo another fMRI scan, which will be compared to their  pre-training scans, to see if these children showed any atypical brain structures prior to training or show any following training.

Significance:  This research is one of the first rigorously controlled studies examining whether music training is directly associated with brain plasticity and the transfer of learning to other cognitive functions.


Effects of Instrumental Music Training on Brain and Cognitive Development in Young Children: A Longitudinal Study

Over the past two and a half years, we have been studying the effect of instrumental music training on children's brain and cognitive development by following a group of children as they began to study music between the ages of five and seven and comparing their development to another group matched in verbal IQ not beginning music training. Some children are receiving Suzuki piano or violin instruction and thus are learning first to play by ear, while the others are receiving traditional instruction in which they learn to play by reading music notation. At baseline and subsequent annual intervals, children have received a structural and functional MRI, as well as a battery of measures assessing visual-spatial, mathematical, and verbal skills; manual dexterity; and music perception skills. At baseline, prior to initiation of music lessons, there were no differences between the music and control children on any of our outcome variables.

Preliminary analyses after one year of music training have revealed significantly greater growth in the music group in manual dexterity and music perception skills and nonsignificant trends favoring the music group in verbal and mathematical performance and in gray matter brain volume. A parallel cross-sectional study in our lab has shown that nine- to eleven-year-olds with an average of three to four years of music training significantly outperformed a control group in verbal and mathematical performance and had significantly more gray matter volume regionally pronounced in the sensorimotor cortex. From these findings, we can extrapolate that significant cognitive and brain effects in our longitudinal study are likely to emerge only after three to four years of music training. We therefore propose to extend our longitudinal study for two more years, at the end of which children in our music group would have had either three or four years of training (depending on when they entered the study).

Due to budgetary constraints, the proposed research would continue to follow only the music group for two more years, using the two different instrumental sub-groups (keyboard vs. string) as controls for one another and using intensity of training, notation reading skill, and type of instruction (learning by ear vs. by notation reading) as predictor variables. The primary question to be addressed is the effect of intensity of music training (product of daily average practice time x months of training) on brain and cognitive/behavioral outcomes.

We will also investigate whether level of music notation learning predicts degree of transfer from music to visual-spatial, mathematical, and verbal tasks and whether those children who exhibit the highest levels of musical talent/achievement after three to four years of training showed atypical brain structures prior to training and/or showed atypical brain changes in response to training. This research will shed light on both brain plasticity and transfer of learning. While music education should never be justified solely in terms of its impact on extramusical learning, the discovery of cognitive transfer from music learning could have important curricular implications for educators of young children. The proposed research could lead to the strengthening of music programs in our schools and thus help to create a more balanced and healthy education for young children.



Intensive instrumental music training in childhood is hypothesized to enhance brain growth in specific brain regions, lead to a left-hemispheric shift in music processing, and enhance performance on visual-spatial, mathematical, verbal, and manual dexterity tasks. Because music notation itself is spatial as well as mathematically based, skill at reading music notation is hypothesized to underlie transfer from music learning to visual-spatial and mathematical performance.

The primary aim of the proposed research is to understand how study of a musical instrument in childhood, coupled with daily practice, may lead to brain adaptations in regions that previous studies have shown to be enlarged in adult musicians. The second aim is to investigate whether instrumental music study causes enhancements in visual-spatial, mathematical, and verbal skills (including phonemic awareness, a linguistic skill linked to reading ability) and in manual dexterity. The third aim is to pinpoint the structural and functional brain changes that underlie any transfer effects found.

Two groups of five- to seven-year-olds have been followed for up to two years: 40 children taking private instrumental lessons (keyboard or string) and 28 control children. At baseline and after each year of the study, children have undergone both a structural and functional MRI (while performing a music discrimination task), and receive a battery of measures testing linguistic, mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, and fine motor ability. We are now following these groups for 2 more years. At the end of the second year of this continuation study, children will receive all of the above tests again. In addition, they will be tested on their ability to read music notation and assessed on their level of music achievement/talent.

Selected Publications

Norton A., Winner E., Cronin K., Overy K., Lee D.J., and Schlaug G.  Are there pre-existing neural, cognitive, or motoric markers for musical ability?  Brain Cogn. 2005 Nov;59(2):124-34 .

Schlaug G., Norton A., Overy K., Cronin K., Lee D.J., and Winner E. Effects of music training on children’s brain and cognitive development.   Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005 Dec;1060:219-30 .

Overy K., Norton A., Cronin K., Gaab N., Alsop D.C., Winner E., and Schlaug G. Imaging melody and rhythm processing in young children.   Neuroreport. 2004 Aug 6;15(11):1723-6 .