Evidence has been building that music lessons boost students’ cognitive skills, helping them excel at a wide range of academic subjects. Research from a variety of organizations has shown that music students that start earlier in the formative years develop into more responsible learners.

The first large-scale, longitudinal study of its type in the Netherlands has found that structured music lessons significantly enhance children’s cognitive abilities – particularly around inhibition, planning and verbal intelligence and therefore their academic achievement. The study involved 147 primary school children over two-and-a-half years.

“Despite indications that music has beneficial effects on cognition, music is disappearing from general education curricula,” says 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 goal was to examine whether structured music lessons can affect executive sub-functions that may underlie academic achievement.  They used a structured musical method developed by the Ministry of Research and Education in the Netherlands together with an expert center for arts education. Participants were grouped into two music intervention groups, one active visual arts group, and a no arts control group. Neuropsychological tests assessed verbal intelligence and executive functions and a national pupil monitor provided data on academic performance.

At the end of the study, the children’s academic performance was assessed, as well as various cognitive skills. The researchers found that children who received music lessons had significant cognitive improvements compared to all other children in the study. The test scores on inhibition, planning and verbal intelligence show that these children perform better on these tasks when compared with controls, and these measures increased significantly in the music groups over time.

The researchers hope their work will contribute to highlighting the importance of music and arts in human culture and cognitive development. “Both music and art classes are supposed to be applied throughout all Dutch primary schools by the year 2020,” says Dr. 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.

”In the United States, another organization has been providing research and information on the importance of music in schools. The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) is an organization of American music educators dedicated to advancing and preserving music education as part of the core curriculum of schools in the United States. Founded in 1907 as the Music Supervisors National Conference (MSNC), the organization was known from 1934 to 1998 as the Music Educators National Conference (origin of the MENC acronym). 

While many studies point in the direction of more positive cognitive skills with music students, others are more cautionary, suggesting smarter, more motivated kids may simply choose to take up an instrument.

Sadly, Music Education in elementary and middle schools has been on a decline in schools around the globe, due to competition with academic subjects and an increasing lack of funding. For many students, the opportunity to learn an instrument is seen as more of a luxury than a necessary part of education.

Fall is a great time to start students in some type of musical program. If your school does not offer a music program there are commercial studios and private music teachers available.

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