The study, which was led by co-principal investigators Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, and Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College and a senior research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tested a group of 59 musicians and non-musicians ranging from eight to eleven years old.
The tests showed that the children who had played piano and, or a string instrument for a mean of 4.63 years performed better on tasks that tested both skills that are both related and unrelated to playing a musical instrument, according to Schlaug,
“The ones that learn to play musical instruments have to learn to recognize and interpret visual patterns very quickly,” said Schlaug. “It is possible that note learning and playing from staff and understanding these visual symbols that these musicians have to do translate into other visual tasks.”
The participants were recruited from public and music schools in the Boston area. They participated in three to four six-hour tests in the span of either three or four weeks.
This investigation is a part of a larger, longitudinal study, funded by the National Science Foundation, that began about five years ago, to test the abilities of musical and non-musical children as they progressed from five to nine years old. The researchers said they expect all of the data to be collected by this coming spring and then subsequently to be used for further analysis.
“It takes a long, long time to do a longitudinal study, and we wanted to get a quick answer to see what the end point would be like,” said Winner. “If we found no result then the longitudinal study would have no purpose.”
Since the smaller study only tested a cross section of the age range—only those who are the oldest—its purpose was to pin point the specific skills which might be enhanced by musical training, Schlaug said.
The longitudinal study examines whether playing a musical instrument enhances children’s abilities or simply serves as an indicator of natural talent. At the end of the longitudinal study, the researchers will pick out the children deemed “very skilled” in playing an instrument and analyze if there are markers that may have indicated natural ability.
“My hope is that we can find evidence for the nurture hypothesis that musical training during development can interfere positively with cognitive development,” said Schlaug. “It is a powerful finding and powerful message that this kind of extracurricular activity over several years can be as powerful and can lead to cognitive changes.”
Winner said that if it is proven that musical training improves cognition, the ways in which children are educated could be changed for the better. In the future, music may be an aid to teach other subject materials.