Habibi, Assal et al. “Neural Correlates of Accelerated Auditory Processing in Children Engaged in Music Training.” Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience 21 (2016): 1-14.


As part of a longitudinal study, researchers investigated the effects of a two-year music training program on the auditory development of children, beginning when they were six or seven years old. The training was group-based and inspired by the El-Sistema program. All participants were students of color and from communities that are historically underserved. Researchers compared the children in the music group with two comparison groups of children from households of similar socio-economic status. One group was involved in sports training, and the other group was not involved in any systematic training. Prior to participating, children who began training in music did not differ from those in the comparison groups in any of the assessed measures. After two years of music training, researchers found that children in the music training group showed increased ability to detect changes in tonal environment than those in the two comparison groups, indicating that they were more attentive to auditory stimulus. Researchers also observed that children in the music training group had faster maturation of the brain pathway responsible for encoding and processing sound as measured by auditory evoked potentials to musical notes. Auditory evoked potentials were measured by electroencephalography (EEG).

Key Findings:

  • Using passive pitch perception task, researchers observed an accelerated maturity of auditory processing as measured by cortical auditory evoked potentials to musical notes.
  • Using an active pitch discrimination task, researchers observed that children involved with music training detected deviations in tonal (pitch) environment more accurately and showed larger auditory evoked potential indexing attention in response to such pitch changes.

Significance of the Findings:

Taken together, the findings in this study provide evidence that childhood music training has a measurable impact on the development of auditory processes. Although the findings in this study are restricted to auditory skills and to their underlying neural correlates, such enhanced maturation may lead to faster and more efficient development of language skills, while also taking into account the shared neural substrates between language and music. The findings provide evidence that music education can play an important role in childhood development and add to the converging evidence that music training is capable of shaping skills that contribute to successful development.


Fifty children were recruited from public elementary schools and community music and sports programs in the greater Los Angeles area. Between induction, baseline assessment and evaluation after two years of training, thirteen children discontinued their participation for various reasons.

The remaining thirty-seven children participated in three groups. Thirteen children (five girls and eight boys) who were beginning their participation in the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at Heart of Los Angeles program formed the music group. Eleven children formed the first comparison group. Children in this first comparison group were beginning training in a community-based soccer program and were not engaged in any musical training. Thirteen children participated in the second comparison group. Children in this second comparison group were recruited from public schools in the same area of Los Angeles, provided they were not involved in any systematic and intensive after school program. All participants were students of color and from communities that are historically underserved. Researchers assessed all participants at baseline and then again two years later using behavioral probes and electrophysiology (EEG).

Limitations of the Research:

  • An inevitable limitation of this study is the absence of a randomized controlled trial design. Such randomization can be very difficult in long-term longitudinal studies such as this one.
  • The participants are typically developing children who enrolled in their respective extracurricular programs (music or sports) by their (and their guardians) own motivation.
  • The study included a relatively small number of participants. This was due to significant logistical challenges in recruiting and retaining the participants, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • Does music training improve language and communication skills?
  • Does learning to play music impact non-musical cognitive skills such as executive function abilities?
  • Are there differences between group-based and individual music training programs in terms of their impact on child development?