Last updated July 5, 2018 at 9:48 am
Study links piano education with better word discrimination.
Music lessons may be more useful than extra reading in helping pre-schoolers develop language skills, but it doesn’t appear to improve their overall cognitive ability, according to a new study.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Beijing Normal University found that improvements in word discrimination tied to piano training were mirrored by enhanced neural responses to changes in musical pitch and lexical tone, suggesting general improvements in sound processing ability.
However, tests of IQ, attention and working memory failed to reveal any broad enhancements in cognitive functions specifically tied to the musical training.
The study was carried out in China. The researchers recruited 74 cognitively comparable Mandarin-speaking children, aged 4 to 5 years, with no previous music training and assigned them to three groups. One received thrice-weekly 45-minute piano lessons for six months, one received training in reading for the same time period, and a control group received no training.
A month later, those who received piano training outperformed the others on a Mandarin word-discrimination task based on consonant sounds. In addition, both piano and reading training appeared to confer similar improvements in vowel-based word discrimination, compared to the control group.
Processing pitch common to music and language
This led the researchers to suggest that early music training might prove salutary to the development of brain regions implicated in processing pitch – a sound element common to music and language.
Previous studies have shown that musicians tend to perform better than non-musicians on tasks such as reading comprehension, distinguishing speech from background noise, and rapid auditory processing, but most of these studies have been done by asking people about their past musical training.
This time, the researchers wanted to perform a more controlled study in which they could randomly assign children to receive music lessons or not, and then measure the effects.
Senior author Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, said he hoped the findings would help convince education officials not to abandon music classes in schools.
“There are positive benefits to piano education in young kids and it looks like, for recognising differences between sounds including speech sounds, it’s better than extra reading,” he said.
“That means schools could invest in music and there will be generalisation to speech sounds. It’s not worse than giving extra reading to the kids, which is probably what many schools are tempted to do – get rid of the arts education and just have more reading.”
The paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.