Ilari, Beatriz et al. “The Development of Musical Skills of Underprivileged Children Over the Course of One Year: A Study in the Context of an El Sistema-Inspired Program.” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 7, No. 62 (2016): 1-13.


This study examined the development of musical skills in children from communities that are historically underserved who attended an El Sistema-inspired program in Los Angeles and participated in a control group. El Sistema is a large-scale, Venezuelan community-based music education program that offers free music instruction for children from communities that are historically underserved. The El Sistema program focuses predominantly on instruments of western music and uses the orchestra as a metaphor for community. El Sistema has inspired the development of music education programs across the globe, including in the United States. In this study, researchers investigated participants’ musical development in an El Sistema-inspired program in Los Angeles. Specifically, researchers examined how children, predominantly of Latino descent, developed musically over the course of one year, in the following musical skills: pitch and rhythmic discrimination, pitch matching through echo singing, singing a song from memory, and rhythmic synchronization through drumming with a researcher and with a computer.

Key Findings:

  • After just one year of music instruction, researchers found that children involved in the music program outperformed controls when singing the song “Happy Birthday” from memory and when drumming with a researcher.
  • Following the program, children in the music group also showed larger improvements than controls on pitch perception and production tasks than controls.
  • While the musical skills of children in the music group either stayed constant or improved over the course of one year, the musical skills of children in the control group tended to decline over the same time period.

Significance of the Findings:

This study focused on children from a community that is historically underserved and from a demographic group that is underrepresented in music literature. It also focused on the development of music skills in a community-based music program ― an area that is not often explored by academic researchers.

Findings from this study add to the body of knowledge on musical development in middle childhood, offering key insights for education, including the suggestion that rhythmic perception skills may take longer to develop than pitch perception skills. This study also suggests that children improve at synchronizing to the beat when drumming with a real person, as opposed to a computer.


This study was part of a longitudinal research project that documented children’s development, in and through music, over the course of five years. In this study, children underwent tasks that involved listening to pairs of sounds and indicated whether they were the same or different, echoed singing patterns, singing a song from memory and drumming along with the researcher or with a computer. Fifty children (23 in the music group, 27 in the control group) who were predominantly of Latino descent and from bilingual families in Los Angeles participated in the study. They were tested before they started their music instruction (music group) and one year later.

Limitations of the Research:

  • The sample size was relatively small.
  • The study focused on a single music program.
  • The tasks used in this study did not include creative musical tasks, such as improvising and composing.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • Would a decline in musical skills (as seen in the control group of this study) be seen in another sample? If so, what are the implications of such findings for music education?
  • As children develop and grow, do their rhythmic skills eventually align with their pitch skills?
  • How do children’s musical skills develop in varied music education programs, including those that focus on popular music?