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Classical Music

Paul Boghossian
Michael Beckerman

Part I

4. Music Education and Child Development1

Assal Habibi, Hanna Damasio et Antonio Damasio

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Brain and Music Program at the Brain and Creativity Institute is supported by the GRoW at Annen (...)

1Over the past two decades there has been an increase of research on the role of music in child development (Herholz & Zatorre, 2012; Swaminathan & Schellenberg, 2016). There are reports suggesting that learning to play music may further strengthen the intellectual and social development of children. In spite of this, many students in the current USA educational system have limited access to theatre, dance, visual arts, or music classes, and students from ethnic and racial minorities and from low-income communities bear a disproportionate share of this decline in art education (National Endowment for the Arts, 2011). In California, for example, during a period when the total public-school student population increased by 5.8 %, the percentage of all public-school students involved in music education courses declined by 50 %—the largest decline in any academic subject area (Music for All Foundation, 2004). Several factors, including overemphasis on standardized testing in the areas of reading, math, and science and an ongoing crisis of diminishing budgets for public education, contribute to this decline in enrolment and access to music over the last two decades. To ensure that all children have access to a full and balanced education that includes music, we believe that policymakers, legislators, educators, and parents need to hear directly from scientists about the new and truly significant findings concerning music education and child development so that they can make informed decisions about the place of music in the school curriculum.

2The Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC) has been involved in music, neuroscience, and education research for the past decade; in this chapter, we summarize some of the most important findings on music training and child development drawn from our work and from the work of other groups. Advocating for access to quality music education should not have to be on the grounds of research proven benefits, such as improved language skills cognitive abilities or brain health. The plain consequences of music experience on the enjoyment of life and on humans are justification enough. We firmly believe that music and other arts are essential components of childhood development that will promote skill learning and will give children access to creative imagination in a fundamentally enjoyable and interactive context.

The Measurable Benefits of a Music Education

3Playing a musical instrument typically requires a child to learn to continuously switch between reading musical notes and translating them into meaningful sounds by monitoring and adjusting fine finger movements to an instrument. When playing in a group, children also have to learn to attend to new and competing streams of sound as produced by their own playing and by other performers. Playing a musical instrument, as is the case with the acquisition of other complex skills, requires focused attention, self-discipline and prioritizing practice over more instantly gratifying activities. It is likely that mastering such skills can benefit a variety of processes including executive functions, cognitive abilities and prosocial behaviors. Furthermore, playing music entails not only the recruitment of the auditory, somatosensory, and visual systems but also the interaction of these sensory systems with the motor, executive, and affective systems. The combination of such demands is likely to influence the differential development, maintenance, and function of certain brain structures and systems.

A Longitudinal Study of the Effects of Music Education on Child Development

4In the hope of uncovering the effects of musical education on the developing brain, we undertook a longitudinal study of school children (2012–2020). We opted for a population from deprived socioeconomic backgrounds convinced that such backgrounds could eliminate cultural factors which might otherwise contaminate the data. Here, we review the impact of this classical music training program comparing the target group with control groups not involved in music training but with comparable socioeconomic and cultural background.

5We recruited eighty-eight participants, with an average age of 6.8 years from community music and sports programs and from public elementary schools in the Greater Los Angeles area. The participants came from three groups: the first group constituted children who had enrolled and were about to begin participation in the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at the Heart of Los Angeles program, known as YOLA at HOLA. The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles is a signature education program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It is inspired by the Venezuelan approach to music studies known as “El Sistema”. It offers free group-based classical music instruction 4–5 days a week to children from underserved communities of Los Angeles. The program emphasizes systematic, high intensity group music training. It focuses on rhythm, melody, harmony, and ensemble practice with the goal of promoting social inclusion. The curriculum includes group string instrument practice, group singing, the Orff Approach, and musicianship (ear training and theory skills), totaling 6–7 hours of music instruction per week.

6The second group of children had enrolled and were about to begin participation in community-based soccer or swimming programs. The soccer and swimming programs offered free or low-cost training in a community setting to all children whose parents choose to enroll. The sports training group was selected as a comparison group to control for aspects of musical training that would likely be shared by those in a regular, extra-curricular activity. These include social engagement, discipline, and sustained effort. Sports training was also chosen because of its attendant sensory motor learning, a component that is widely shared with music training. These aspects alone may have beneficial effects on development of both cognitive and social skills, and it was thus essential to include an active comparison group.

7The third group of children was recruited from public elementary schools in the same Los Angeles areas. At the time of recruitment, the children in the third group were not engaged in any organized and systematic after-school programs (Habibi et al., 2014).

8All participants came from equally underprivileged backgrounds. Their family incomes were predominately below the federal poverty guidelines. All resided in geographical regions of Los Angeles affected by well-known common problems: large urban areas, high levels of poverty, drug trafficking, and violence. Most child participants were of Latino background and were being raised in bilingual households. They attended English-speaking schools that did not offer comprehensive music or sports education programs.

9The children visited our laboratories at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute once a year, for six cumulative years, and participated in series of psychological and behavioral probes assessing cognitive, social, and emotional development. Furthermore, they completed neuroimaging assessments including Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) designed to assess maturation of brain structures and connectivity of brain structures (Habibi, Sarkissian, Gomez, & Ilari, 2015).

10At the beginning of the study, when children did not yet have any music or sports training, we found that the children in the music training group were not different from the children in the other two groups. Specifically, there were no differences between groups in brain measures and in intellectual, motor, musical, and social measures.

Music Education and Children’s Cognitive, Social, and Brain Development

11The findings concerning the influence of music training on the children’s development are first reported in terms of the impact of music training on musical and auditory skills followed by the impact on nonmusical skills, cognitive abilities, and socioemotional maturation.

12We found that children who received music training perform better than children in both comparison groups on tasks measuring pitch and rhythm discrimination (Ilari et al., 2016). The children were also better at perceiving temporal regularity in musical rhythm—what is commonly known as beat perception—which is a fundamental skill for music perception and production. The children in the music group, but not the children in the two comparison groups, showed enhanced ability to detect changes in tonal environment and displayed an increased functional development of the auditory pathways as measured by cortical auditory evoked potentials to musical notes (Habibi et al., 2016). The development of these skills in childhood is critical for music training and also contributes significantly to the development of language and communication skills.

13In relation to cognitive abilities, we found that children who received music training show improvements in executive function skills when compared to their peers who did not receive music education. Executive functions are top-down processes related to goal acquisition and decision making that primarily recruit the brain’s prefrontal areas (Miller & Cohen, 2001). These skills have been shown to be predictive of academic success (Alloway et al., 2005), career success (Bailey, 2007), positive socioemotional wellbeing (Eisenberg et al., 2005), reduced substance abuse risk and incarceration (Moffitt et al., 2011), and physical health (Miller, Barnes, & Beaver, 2011).

14We also observed that children who received music training are better at decision making and at controlling their impulses. For example, compared to their control counterparts, they are capable of rejecting a small reward in favor of larger and better rewards at a later time (Hennessy et al., 2019). They reach this level of maturity earlier than the children who did not receive music training. They also perform better in assessments requiring task switching skills and they display stronger engagement of the brain’s prefrontal network while performing these tasks inside the MRI scanner at an earlier age (Sachs et al., 2017). These findings suggest that music training during childhood is associated with beneficial changes in the brain’s cognitive control and decision-making networks.

15In the context of this study, we also conducted annual interviews with the parents of the participating children. Our goal was to examine parental views on the potential effects of music education program on children’s socio-emotional skills and personality. What we observed is that parents held the impression that children who participated in the music as well as in sports programs in their communities were less aggressive and hyperactive, and showed more emotional stability over time than children who did not attend such programs. This is noteworthy considering that there were no differences in such measures at the beginning of the study and prior to the children’s entry into these programs (Ilari et al., 2019). These findings suggest that access and participation in community-based programs can affect children, families, and their communities in positive ways. In relation to other social skills, we also observed that children musicians who show higher synchronization with others in a joint-drumming task were more willing to share their resources (e.g., stickers, toys) with others, suggesting that formal music training not only enhances rhythm synchronization skills in children but also generates positive affect and pro-social behavior towards others (Ilari, Fesjian, & Habibi, 2018).

16Finally, in relation to brain development and in line with reports from others, we observed that children who received music training show more robust connectivity (larger fractional anisotropy) in the white matter pathways connecting the left and the right hemisphere, via the corpus callosum (see Fig. 1) (Habibi et al., 2018). Given that playing a musical instrument requires processing of sound, coordination of both hands, and integration of actions of auditory and motor systems, it is possible that these demands lead to a higher interhemispheric interaction and communication, which, in turn, might promote an accelerated maturation of the connections that join them.

Fig. 1 Aerial view of the brain from the top depicting white matter pathways connecting the left and the right hemisphere. Children who received music training showed more robust connectivity in the frontal, sensory and motor segments of these interhemispheric connections. Image from data collected as part of ongoing study at the Brain and Creativity Institute (2012–2020); post-processed by Dr. Hanna Damasio (2020), CC-BY-NC-ND.

Concluding Remarks

17The findings from this multi-method interdisciplinary research program indicate that music education induces a degree of brain and behavioral changes in developing children that cannot be attributable to pre-existing biological traits and developmental abilities. Considering these findings, the idea of reducing or removing music lessons from education curriculum is unjustifiable. However despite the unequivocal evidence indicating that participation in music education programs can positively benefit children, schools will continue to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach as long as legislators and policymakers view music participation as relatively inconsequential, and do not allocate the necessary budgets to support implementation and maintenance of music programs. Neuroscience and psychology research now show that music and arts in general can play an important role in developing the intellectual and emotional well-being of our children. We believe that it is the responsibility of every education policymaker to consider these findings seriously and to ensure that we keep in place the financial and educational structures that provide all students—irrespective of their socio-economic status, ethnic, or geographic background—access to a complete and balanced education with high standards for every subject including music and arts.



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1 The Brain and Music Program at the Brain and Creativity Institute is supported by the GRoW at Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the Van Otterloo Family Foundation, the National Institute of Health and the National Endowment for the Art.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Assal Habibi, Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, 3620 A McClintock Avenue, Suite 262, Los Angeles, California, 90089-2921, USA. E-mail:

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 Aerial view of the brain from the top depicting white matter pathways connecting the left and the right hemisphere. Children who received music training showed more robust connectivity in the frontal, sensory and motor segments of these interhemispheric connections. Image from data collected as part of ongoing study at the Brain and Creativity Institute (2012–2020); post-processed by Dr. Hanna Damasio (2020), CC-BY-NC-ND.
Fichier image/jpeg, 13k


Is an Assistant Research Professor of Psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California. Her research takes a broad perspective on understanding music’s influence on health and development, focusing on how biological dispositions and music learning experiences shape the brain and development of cognitive, emotional and social abilities across the lifespan. She is an expert on the use of electrophysiologic and neuroimaging methods to investigate human brain function and has used longitudinal and cross-sectional designs to investigate how music training impacts the development of children from under-resourced communities, and how music generally is processed by the body and the brain. Her research program has been supported by federal agencies and private foundations including the NIH, NEA and the GRoW @ Annenberg Foundation, and her findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals including Cerebral Cortex, Music Perception, Neuroimage, and PLoS ONE. Currently, she is the lead investigator of a multi-year longitudinal study, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their Youth Orchestra program (YOLA), investigating the effects of early childhood music training on the development of brain function and structure as well as cognitive, emotional, and social abilities. Dr. Habibi is a classically trained pianist and has many years of musical teaching experience with children, a longstanding personal passion.

M.D. is University Professor, Dana Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Dana and David Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of Southern California. Using computerized tomography and magnetic resonance scanning, she has developed methods of investigating human brain structure and studied functions such as language, memory and emotion, using both the lesion method and functional neuroimaging. Besides numerous scientific articles (Web of Knowledge H Index is 85; over 40,620 citations), she is the author of the award-winning Lesion Analysis in Neuropsychology (Oxford University Press, 1990), and of Human Brain Anatomy in Computerized Images (Oxford University Press, 1995), the first brain atlas based on computerized imaging data.
Hanna is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Neurological Association and she holds honorary doctorates from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the Universities of Aachen and Lisbon, and the Open University of Catalonia. In January 2011, she was named USC University Professor.

Is Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy, and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Damasio was trained as both neurologist and neuroscientist. His work on the role of affect in decision-making and consciousness has made a major impact in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. He is the author of several hundred scientific articles and is one of the most cited scientists of the modern era.
Damasio’s recent work addresses the evolutionary development of mind and the role of life regulation in the generation of cultures (see The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (Random House, 2018-2019)). His new book Feeling and Knowing will appear in 2021. Damasio is also the author of Descartes’ Error (Avon Books, 1994), The Feeling of What Happens (Vintage, 2000), Looking for Spinoza (Mariner Books, 2003) and Self Comes to Mind (Vintage, 2012), which are translated and taught in universities worldwide.
Damasio is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received numerous prizes, among them the International Freud Medal (2017), the Grawemeyer Award (2014), the Honda Prize (2010), and the Asturias Prize in Science and Technology (2005); he holds Honorary Doctorates from several leading universities, some shared with his wife Hanna, e.g. the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), 2011 and the Sorbonne (Université Paris Descartes), 2015.
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