The Effect of Early Music Training on Child Cognitive Development

Bilhartz, T. D., Bruhn, R. A. & Olson, J. E. (1999). The Effect of Early Music Training on Child Cognitive Development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20(4), 615-636.


The researchers conducted an experimental study to determine the relationship between the structured early childhood music curriculum, Kindermusik, and cognitive development. Seventy-one four through six year olds from Head Start programs and private pre-schools in Texas were given pre and post tests using the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, fourth edition (SB) and the Young Child Music Skills Assessment (MSA). Approximately one half of the sample participated in a 30-week, 75-minute weekly, parent-involved music curriculum. The researchers’ statistical analysis showed significant gains on the MSA and on the SB Bead Memory subtest for participants receiving music instruction. The treatment group also produced higher scores on other SB measurements for select populations. This study suggests a correlation between early music instruction and spatial-temporal reasoning abilities.

Key Findings:

The results for this study lend support to the hypothesis that there is a significant link between early music instruction and cognitive growth in specific non-music abilities. The music-treated children in this study scored significantly higher on one measure of abstract reasoning ability, the SB Bead Memory subtests. Parent participation and out-of-class assignments dropped sharply over time in the Head Start and low to middle socio-economic demographics. The groups who had the greatest sustained parent participation and completion of outside assignments scored the highest on the MSA subtests. Intensity of music treatment corresponded with greater growth in scores of abstract reasoning ability. This finding followed predictable patterns with rates of improvement corresponding to socioeconomic status (higher income households had greater compliance to the program). Children exposed to early Kindermusik treatment prior to this study improved more during the treatment period than children who had never received prior early music education. The Kindermusik treatment did not have a significant impact on other SB measurements of abstract reasoning.

Significance of the Findings:

This link between music treatment and Bead Memory scores is of particular importance because this subtest measures both visual imagery and sequencing strategies. These mental processes have been theorized to require the same neural firing patterns that are needed in the performance of musical activity. The evidence of this study supports this theory: Children trained to produce music vocally and on a glockenspiel – sequential training that uses and develops kinesthetic, aural, and visualization skills – become better able to perform the abstract reasoning tasks measured by the SB Bead Memory subtest.


This project was designed to examine what forms and levels of music experience produce cognitive gains in music. The study also gauged if there were gains limited to spatial-temporal reasoning (as suggested by previous research) and if demographic and familiar factors impact the link between music performance and spatial temporal reasoning.

The participants of this study were 71 four and five year olds from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. They attended classes at several sites in east Texas counties: two rural Head start centers, four preschools in a small city, and a music center in the same city. Students were assigned to either an experimental treatment group or a control group receiving no treatment. Among the 71 participants, twelve students had already received some Kindermusik instruction before the study. Nine of these students were in the experimental group and three were in the control group.

The control group attended their respective preschools but received no additional in-class music treatment. The experimental group participated in a Kindermusik for the Young Child program taught by licensed Kindermusik educators. Three classes of approximately twelve students per class met for 75 minutes once weekly for 30 weeks. The program was designed for direct caregiver/parent involvement through class participation and assistance with weekly home assignments.

Students were administered pre- and post-tests designed to measure a variety of cognitive abilities and musical skills, respectively the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, fourth edition (SB) and the Young Child Music Skills Assessment (MSA). Growth from pre- to post-tests on the musical measure would bring assurance that some measure of music treatment was delivered to the experimental group from the Kindermusik classes.

The compliance to the Kindermusik program varied with caregivers (including participation in the classes and out of class assignments). This prompted the researchers to create a separate compliance variable to discriminate between those in the experimental group who met or failed to meet specified compliance standards to the program.

Limitations of the Research:

This research found strong correlations between levels of parental involvement in the music program and post treatment scores on both SB Verbal and Abstract Reasoning measurements. As this effect was only significant with high-income children, a causal link cannot be confirmed. A possible explanation may be provided by the increased verbal interactions between children and caregivers that occurred while completing the out-of-class KM assignments.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What particular forms of music treatment, in what amounts, and at what age produce the greatest cognitive gains?