Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning

Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Norton, A., & Schlaug, G. (2008). Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. PLoS ONE, 3.


This study examines the association between instrumental music training in childhood and cognitive outcomes both proximally related to music (fine motor and auditory discrimination skills) and distally related to music (spatial, verbal, nonverbal, and mathematical skills). Children who received at least three years of instrumental music training were compared to children without such training. Researchers found that children with instrumental music training outperformed comparison children on auditory discrimination and fine motor skills, as well as on vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning. Duration of music training also predicted better performance on outcomes. However, instrumental music training did not predict higher spatial skills, phonemic awareness, or mathematic abilities.

Key Findings:

Researchers found the instrumental group and comparison group differed on seven out of 16 cognitive outcomes measured. Students with music training performed better than those without music training on tasks related to fine motor skills and auditory discrimination (both closely linked to music), as well as vocabulary and verbal skills (both distantly related to music). The groups did not differ on tasks related to spatial abilities, phonemic awareness, or mathematical abilities. Findings were mixed for nonverbal reasoning with one task showing significant differences between the groups and another task showing no difference.

Researchers also examined the effect of training duration on cognitive outcome. More years of music training predicted better performance on tasks related to fine motor skills and auditory discrimination, vocabulary, and nonverbal reasoning.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings support previous research indicating that playing a musical instrument (for three or more years) in childhood enhances various aspects of cognitive development, both in domains similar to music, such as auditory discrimination and fine motor skills, and areas distantly related to music, such as vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning. This study, although correlational, has implications for students, teachers, and schools, in terms of providing children with opportunities for consistent and long-term instrumental music instruction that may augment their cognitive performance in particular domains.


Researchers examined 59 elementary schoolchildren comparing those with a minimum of three years of instrumental music training (41 children; mean years of training was 4.63, ranging from approximately three to seven years) with children who had no formal music instruction (18 children). Average age of children was 9.96 years, ranging from eight to 11 years old; both groups were evenly divided between males and females. Children in the music group played keyboard and/or string instruments. Demographic analyses indicated the instrumental music group and comparison group did not differ based on socio-economic status and gender distribution; however the groups significantly differed in age with the instrumental group being somewhat older (mean age = 10.10 years old) than the comparison group (mean age = 9.63 years old). Thus, age was controlled for in all statistical analyses.

Children participated in three to four testing sessions over the course of three to four weeks, totaling about six hours of assessment. Researchers examined cognitive domains closely associated with music: Fine Motor skills assessed using a Motor Learning task and Auditory Discrimination skills assessed using Gordon’s IMMA and Melodic and Rhythmic Discrimination tasks. They also assessed domains distally related to music: Spatial skills via the Block Design subtest and Object Assembly subtest of the WISC-III; Verbal skills using the Vocabulary subtest of the WISC-III and Auditory Analysis test (for phonemic awareness); Nonverbal Reasoning using the Raven’s Progressive Matrices – Colored, Standard, and Advanced; and Mathematical skills using Key Math-Basic Concepts, Operations, and Applications subtests.

Researchers provided descriptive results and conducted One-way Analyses of Variance (ANOVAs) and Multivariate Analyses of Variance (MANOVAs) for preliminary demographic tests. Between groups differences on all cognitive outcomes were conducted using MANCOVAs and a series of multiple regression analyses (controlling for age) were used to examine the effects of training duration on the cognitive outcomes.

Limitations of the Research:

Because of the correlational design, researchers are unable to determine whether music instruction caused children’s enhanced verbal and nonverbal reasoning skills, or whether other variables were responsible for these effects; only experimental/longitudinal studies can sufficiently demonstrate transfer of musical training to other domains. Another limitation is that researchers did not match or attempt to equate the instrumental and control groups on cognitive ability (e.g., verbal or nonverbal IQ) at baseline prior to the study in order to account for group differences, so it is unclear whether the music group entered the study with higher cognitive abilities, which may explain the study’s results. However, the researchers conducted all analyses adding vocabulary as a covariate, and then again adding the Ravens PM as a covariate, and results did not differ from their original analyses.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Would instrumental music training in childhood transfer to other domains and enhance cognitive development if examined via an experimental (or quasi-experimental) longitudinal design, where the instrumental and control groups were matched (i.e., no group differences in IQ or performance on cognitive outcomes) prior to the study? Would findings be domain-specific (only affecting areas closely related to music), or would one see more effects in areas distantly related to music? Would these effects of musical training in childhood also be found in an adolescent population? Or even extend into adulthood?