I came across an interesting new piece of research into the benefits of musical training the other day on a music teacher friend’s website – click here to see the article. This functional MRI study suggests that there is a link between early music training and improved executive functioning in both adults and children. So what does that really mean?! Read on to find out…
What is Executive Function?
Basically, Executive Function is the brain’s system for planning stuff, controlling inhibitions, thinking flexibly and generating new ideas. I like to think about it as a wee ‘executive’ guy in a pin stripe suit who sits in the front of your brain organising things. Executive function allows you to do 4 key things:
- Plan stuff – for example, planning ahead for a PE lesson and organising all the things you need to pack into your bag the night before, planning a shopping list or planning an essay.
- Transfer your attention between tasks – so that you can finish one task then switch your attention on to the next task which might be totally different from the first.
- Inhibit inappropriate impulses – Executive function is what stops you from reading a text that makes your phone vibrate in the middle of a conversation with your mother in law. It also stops you doing things like pointing out the massive spot on the end of your friend’s nose or telling your teacher that her new haircut looks like someone put a bowl on her head and cut round it with their eyes closed!
- Be creative - for example coming up with a new recipe idea, thinking of a fun day out for your friends or writing a song.
Who has difficulty with Executive Function?
Probably the biggest groups of people who typically have issues with weak executive function throughout their lives are those who have a diagnosis of Autism (ASD), Asperger’s Syndrome and/or ADHD. Other groups are also affected though,for example, those with head injuries or degenerative brain conditions. Even without a specific diagnosis, you can still have weak executive function.
What Does the Boston study say about Music Training and Executive Functioning?
First and foremost, no-one is saying that if you get your autistic child into music training they will be cured of all problems relating to executive function! Do not misunderstand this as yet another ‘miracle cure’! What the researchers found is that adult musicians and musically trained children got better scores on tests of executive function than a non-musically trained control group. The researchers carried out functional MRI scans (also called fMRI – click here to learn more) on musically trained children & controls while they completed a test of executive function skills. The scans showed more activity in the brain areas associated with executive function in the group of musically trained children than in the brains of the non-musically trained control group.
While this study does show evidence of better executive function in musically trained people, it does not establish whether the improved skills are definitely due to the musical training OR whether people with better executive functioning are simply drawn to learning music. More investigation is required to clear this up! Whatever the outcome of this line of research, the benefits of music training for a whole range of cognitive skills, including language development, are well documented. So expose your child to music when you can. If they are interested in learning to play something, let them have a go. erhaps pay a visit to my friends at Morningside School of Music for some lessons. Apart from anything else, MUSIC IS FUN!