The effects of three years of piano instruction on children’s cognitive development

Costa-Giomi, E. (1999). The effects of three years of piano instruction on children’s cognitive development. Journal of Research in Music Education. 47:3 198-212.


This experimental longitudinal study investigates the effect of music instruction on the cognitive development of young children ages 9-12. The researcher compared a treatment group of students who received after-school piano instruction once a week to a control group of students that received no piano instruction. He followed the groups from the beginning of their fourth-grade year to the end of their sixth-grade year. The control and treatment groups were considered equal in their cognitive and musical abilities, motor proficiency, self-esteem, academic achievement and interest in playing the piano at the start of the study.

The researcher found piano lessons to have a positive effect on students’ general and spatial cognitive development, although the increase from the control group was small. The treatment group exhibited higher scores on the Developing Cognitive Abilities Test after year one and two, but the control group matched the scores of the experimental group by the end of year three.

Key Findings:

Students given weekly piano lessons scored higher on general cognitive and spatial testing than their peers in the control group after years one and two of the study. General cognitive skills are necessary for learning and include attention, memory, logic and reasoning. Spatial skills are those utilized by students to mentally visualize and manipulate pattern and are necessary for success in other academic subjects such as mathematics. During the third year of the study the control and treatment groups’ scores on the general cognitive and spatial skills tests evened.

The researcher proposes that the reason for the temporality of effect may be related to students’ dedication to learning piano. At the beginning of the study, students’ enthusiasm about a new activity is great and contributes to their learning of skills faster and to easier improving cognitive abilities. After years pass, further cognitive development is dependent on students’ dedication to their study.

This theory is supported by the researcher’s finding that some variance (22%) in cognitive improvements of the children receiving piano lessons was explained by the children’s attendance and practice rates, suggesting that those who persisted and actively participated in the process of learning the piano benefitted to a greater extent than those who were not as active in their piano lessons. The study did not find a difference in the quantitative or verbal abilities of the music students and control group students.

Significance of the Findings:

The research study supports previous research that suggests a link between practicing music and gains in general cognitive and spatial reasoning skills, and highlights the importance of sustaining musical engagement and practice over time.


The researcher invited all the 4th grade students attending the 20 English language schools of the largest school district in Montreal, Quebec to participate in the study, with a total sample group of 117 children. The children were equal in cognitive ability, musical ability, motor proficiency, self-esteem, academic achievement and interest in studying piano at the start of the research study. The students were all also from a lower socio-economic status background.

The children were divided into a control and experimental group. The experimental group included 67 students, while 50 were assigned to the control group. Due to attrition over the 3-year study (both dropping out of lessons and moving away), 78 children participated in all three years of the study and all of the cognitive ability testing. Each student in the experimental group received three years of individual piano instruction once a week for 30 minutes the first two years and 45 minutes the third year.

The researcher administered five standardized tests prior to beginning the lessons and again after the end of each year and administered tests to ensure that results were not skewed due to attrition based on “less-capable” students dropping out of lessons or independent variables such as gender, income, family structure or parental employment.

The researcher used the Developing Cognitive Abilities Test, subtests of the Musical Aptitude Profile and the Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency, and language arts and mathematics subtests of the Canadian Achievement Test 2 as data sources. The piano instructors also provided weekly progress reports. The researcher performed a series of analyses comparing the control and experimental groups to study the effect of the music treatment on the children’s cognitive development.

Limitations of the Research:

The research study does not isolate which element of music instruction helps develop cognitive abilities. Potential influences on cognitive abilities developed through music instruction include the actual performance of music, individual attention received from the piano instructor, general concentration skills developed during practice, or the increased use of symbols involved in reading music. Additionally, this study uses students between the ages of nine and twelve, and some research suggests hormones (in flux during adolescence) contribute to artistic talent as well as cognitive abilities. Neurological and hormonal changes should be accounted for in further studies of how music affects cognitive abilities in this age group.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How would a similar study’s results differ if conducted with a different age group?

Which elements of music instruction develop cognitive and spatial abilities? How would the results change if the study period was expanded to a longer length of time? Would the prolonged exposure and practice in music elicit more dramatic gains in general cognitive and spatial skills?