Matthew Sachs et al. “Increased Engagement of the Cognitive Control Network Associated With Music Training in Children During an FMRI Stroop Task.” Plos One 12, no. 10 (2017). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0187254.


As part of an ongoing longitudinal study, the authors investigated the effects of music training (through an extracurricular program) on executive function (generally, the three inter-related cognitive processes of inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility). Executive function was assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and several behavioral tasks. Children that received ongoing music training were compared to two groups of children of comparable general cognitive abilities and socioeconomic status. One group was involved in extracurricular sports and the other group, that served as the control group, was not involved in either extracurricular sports or music training. Results suggest systematic extracurricular training, particularly music-based training, is associated with changes in the cognitive control network in the brain even in the absence of changes in behavioral performance.

Key Findings:

  • Children with two years of group-based music training showed significantly greater differences in the cognitive control network during the Color-Word Stroop test as compared to the control group.
    • During the Color-Word Stroop task, children with music training showed significantly greater activity across multiple parts of the brain in trials that required cognitive control compared to the control group, despite no differences in performance on behavioral measures of executive function.
  • Performance on several behavioral tasks of executive function did not vary by group.
  • No significant differences in brain activation or in task performance were found between the music and sports groups.
  • The results cannot rule out the possibility that other types of focused and repeated training aside from music may also influence the development of neural systems involved in cognitive control.

Significance of the Findings:

The results provide some support for the hypothesis that learning to play a musical instrument can impact brain networks that enable executive functioning, which may be connected to music training and enhanced cognitive abilities. While the study did not necessarily focus on the pedagogy of the music training, the findings mildly suggest a link between long-term music training, and perhaps other types of similar training, for children and potentially enhanced cognitive abilities. Participants were recruited when they were six years old, so results may indicate the impact of music training at an early age on changes in the cognitive control network in children. Additionally, participants in all three groups were recruited from public elementary schools and lived in communities that are historically underserved and from households with similar socioeconomic status. The use of fMRI imaging to assess outcomes of music (and other) training for children provides an approach that may not be used often to assess arts education outcomes.


Researchers recruited participants for the study when they were six years old and prior to any systematic training. Participants attended public elementary schools and were from communities that are historically underserved and primarily Latino communities in Los Angeles. Researchers conducted baseline assessments of participants and found no differences between the groups in age, gender, socioeconomic status and cognitive abilities at the outset. Two years later, participants completed their first MRI scan. Parents and their children were interviewed annually. This particular study was conducted over two days. On the first day, children completed an MRI, and parents completed a survey. On the second day, children completed a series of behavioral tasks. Researchers then analyzed the performance of the participants on the behavioral tasks as well as the brain imaging from the MRI. The groups were made up of the following participants:

  • Music Group: Eight boys and six girls who were between eight and nine years old.
  • Sports Group: Five boys and eight girls who were between eight and 10 years old.
  • Control Group: Eleven boys and six girls who were between the ages of eight and nine years old.

Limitations of the Research:

  • The researchers suggest that due to a lack of a direct measure of performance inside the scanner, and since behavioral measures on the task did not differ between the three groups, that it is difficult to interpret the significance of their findings in terms of a unique connection between music training and executive functions.
  • The researchers acknowledge their interpretation of the fMRI findings may differ from other investigators.
  • The researchers do not address the role of motivation on executive functioning tasks.
  • Researchers chose a block-design for the fMRI portion of the study which they acknowledge may have certain limitations.
  • Since no significant neural or behavioral differences were found between the music group and sports group, researchers suggest this may indicate that any type of training in which a child focuses on developing a particular skill through repeated practice may be associated with change in the neural organization networks involved in cognitive control.
  • The sample size was relatively limited, and participants voluntarily participated in the extracurricular music or sports training (and thus indicative of a potential self-selection bias).


Questions to Guide New Research:

  • Does music training have different effects on the cognitive abilities than other types of training (such as sports)?
  • What are the longer-term effects of music training (since participants are part of a larger longitudinal study)?
  • Does this type of arts education/training have similar outcomes for students that start their training at a different age than the participants in this study?
  • Are other types of arts education/training, aside from music, able to produce similar or different effects?
  • Are differences in pedagogy for the training influential to the cognitive outcomes of the participants?
  • Would the observed findings be the same in a larger study with more participants?
  • Would changes in the design of the study or the tasks performed by participants change the observed outcomes and findings?