School music lessons can significantly boost children’s cognitive skills, including language-based reasoning, short-term memory, planning and inhibition, according to a new Dutch study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
In addition, these cognitive skills developed through music go on to positively influence students’ performance in completely unrelated subjects, resulting in improved academics across the board.
In today’s school culture, with its push toward testing and academics, learning to play a musical instrument is seen more as a luxury than a vital part of education. In fact, music education has been removed from school curriculums around the world, due to competition with academic subjects and an increasing lack of funding.
“Despite indications that music has beneficial effects on cognition, music is disappearing from general education curricula,” said Dr. Artur Jaschke, from VU University of Amsterdam, who led the study with Dr. Henkjan Honing and Dr. Erik Scherder. “This inspired us to initiate a long-term study on the possible effects of music education on cognitive skills that may underlie academic achievement.”
The study, which involved 147 children across multiple Dutch schools, is the first large-scale, longitudinal study to be adapted into the regular school curriculum.
The research team used a structured musical method developed by the Ministry of Research and Education in the Netherlands and an expert center for arts education. All of the schools followed the regular primary school curriculum, with some offering supplementary music or visual arts classes. In these, the children were given both theoretical and practical lessons.
After 2.5 years, the children’s academic performance was evaluated, as well as various cognitive skills including planning, inhibition and memory skills.
The findings reveal that students who received music lessons showed significant cognitive improvements compared to all other children in the study. Visual arts classes also showed a benefit: Children in these classes had significantly improved visual and spatial short-term memory compared to students who had not received any supplementary lessons.
“Children who received music lessons showed improved language-based reasoning and the ability to plan, organize and complete tasks, as well as improved academic achievement,” said Jaschke.
“This suggests that the cognitive skills developed during music lessons can influence children’s cognitive abilities in completely unrelated subjects, leading to overall improved academic performance.”
The researchers hope the findings will shed light on the importance of music and art education in human culture and cognitive development.
“Both music and arts classes are supposed to be applied throughout all Dutch primary schools by the year 2020,” said Jaschke. “But considering our results, we hope that this study will support political developments to reintegrate music and arts education into schools around the world.”