The Effects of Musical Training on Child Development: A randomized trial of El Sistema in Venezuela.

Alemán, X., Duryea, S., Guerra, N.G. et al. (2016). The Effects of Musical Training on Child Development: A randomized trial of El Sistema in Venezuela. Prevention Science.


This study aims to assess the effects of a largescale music program on children’s developmental functioning in the context of high rates of exposure to violence using Venezuela’s “El Sistema” program which emphasizes social interactions through group instruction and group performances. The randomized control trial was conducted in 16 music centers between May 2012 and November 2013. In total, 2914 children ages 6–14 participated in the experiment, with approximately half receiving an offer of admission to the program in September 2012 and half in September 2013. The treatment group children participated for one semester more than the control group children. After 1 year, indicated improved self control and reduced behavioral difficulties. There were no full sample effects on other domains. The effects were largest among (1) children with less educated mothers and (2) boys, especially those exposed to violence at baseline. In the latter subgroup, the researchers found lower levels of aggressive behavior. 

Key Findings:

Using a randomized-control trial, the authors of this study explored the impact of Venezuela’s El Sistema program. The key findings from this study included:
  • Students participating in the study reported improved levels of self control and fewer behavior problems than those who did not.
  • The impacts of the program were stronger for children with less-educated mothers.
  • The improvement in self control and reduction in instances of aggressive behavior were stronger for boys than for girls, particularly when those boys have been previously exposed to violence.
  • There were no significant full-sample effects for cognitive or pro-social skills. There were also few statistically significant impacts for girls.

Significance of the Findings:

This study demonstrates the important impact that music programs can have on the behavior of students, particularly those who are most disadvantaged. The results provide a promising understanding that the arts can serve a role in reducing aggressive behavior and increasing self-control, particularly for boys who are exposed to violence. Schools and policymakers should consider the role that programs such as this can play in improving school culture and other behavioral outcomes.


This randomized, controlled study explores the impact of Venezuela’s state-funded El Sistema music program on the student participants. A total of 16 sites across Venezuela participated. Sites were chosen on their status of being over-subscribed and, thus, have the limited capacity necessary to justify putting students on a waiting list.

Parents/guardians of interested students submitted written applications to their local site and those applications were cluster-matched and randomly assigned to either early admission or admission the following year. Sites received applications from 2,529 guardians for 2,914 children between the ages of 6 and 14. Randomization occurred at the guardian level rather than student level to avoid any spillover impact should students in the same household be assigned to different categories. Students in the first year of participation generally participate in both orchestral and choral programs which constitutes instruction and community performance opportunities.

The authors identified 26 outcome measures across four domains of self-regulatory skills, behaviors, prosocial skills, and cognitive skills. Each of the domains included a data collection process including questionnaires (and other guardian self-reported data) and computerized games. The analysis was conducted using a regression analysis controlling for a broad array of social, cultural, and economic indicators.

Limitations of the Research:

This study uses a randomized-control study which is considered the gold standard of statistical analysis. However, limitations for this study include: the potential bias in the guardian-reported outcome data, the relatively small number of site locations used, and the allowance of 5% of students to be assigned by site directors instead of through the randomized process. Finally, the generalizability of this study is limited by the unique nature of the government support for this program in Venezuela.

Questions to Guide New Research:

This study provides a strong understanding of what is happening in Venezuela’s El Sistema program but questions remain. Potential questions for future research include:
  • How would the use of a wider array of outcome data reporters (music directors, etc.) impacted the results?
  • How would the inclusion of sites that are not over-subscribed impact the results?
  • What are the longitudinal impacts of this program?
  • Are there differences in effects between the choral and orchestral programs?
  • How would such a program impact student outcomes in other political settings (i.e., outside Venezuela)