Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E. G., Cepeda, N. J. & Chau, T. (2011). Short-term music training enhances verbal intelligence and executive function. Psychological Science, 22, 1425-1433.


This study examines the effects of two interactive computerized training programs developed for preschool children, one teaching music (focused on music listening activities) and the other visual art. After an intensive, short-term training period of 20 days, the children in the music program, but not the visual art program, demonstrated enhanced performance on a measure of verbal intelligence, with 90% of the sample showing this improvement. These verbal ability improvements were correlated with changes in functional brain plasticity (i.e., physical changes to the brain) during an executive function task that measured accuracy and reaction time. These findings provide evidence of broad transfer—transfer of training in music-listening skills to a high-level cognitive skill (i.e., verbal ability) in early childhood as a result to changes in the brain.

Key Findings:

  • Following the training program, the music group showed significant improvement in a measure of verbal ability (vocabulary knowledge) with more than 90% of children in the music group exhibiting statistically significant pretest to posttest improvement.
  • The music group significantly outperformed the visual-arts group at posttest for accuracy on the go trials, a test of executive function. However, there were no group differences on response times.
  • Increases in verbal ability were associated with increases in functional brain plasticity for children in the music program.

Significance of the Findings:

These findings provide evidence that training in music-listening skills can affect students’ verbal ability. These findings have relevance for students, parents, and educators because previous research demonstrates that verbal IQ is highly predictive of academic achievement, and there is also a strong association between IQ measured in early childhood and IQ measured in later childhood and adolescence.


A sample of 48 four to six year-old children was recruited from the community and assigned either to a computerized music or computerized visual art training program created by the researcher. The music-training group (24 students) did not significantly differ from the visual-arts group (24 students) in age or mother’s education level. Pretest results also indicated no significant differences between the groups on intelligence measures or a test of executive function.

The music and visual art programs varied only in content of training; they were similar in terms of learning goals, graphics/design, duration, and number of teaching staff. Music training was based primarily on listening activities and was not instrumental training. The (patented) music curriculum comprised a combination of motor, perceptual, and cognitive tasks and included training in rhythm, pitch, melody, voice, and basic music concepts. The visual arts program emphasized visuospatial skills relating to concepts including shape, color, line, dimension, and perspective. The training programs involved two daily sessions lasting one hour each (45 minutes training), five days a week for four weeks. Sessions were conducted in groups led by a teacher and the training programs were projected onto a classroom wall.

The researchers used the Vocabulary and Block Design subtests of the WPPSI-III (IQ measure for preschool children) to assess verbal and spatial abilities. Parents completed a questionnaire assessing children’s previous music and visual art training and mother’s education as a proxy of socio-economic status. To assess executive function (specifically executive control and inhibitory processing) the researchers used a go/no-go task in which four geometric shapes were presented on a computer screen in randomized order and children were trained to press a key on go trials and not press a key on no-go trials. During the task an electroencephalogram with 64 electrodes (used to measure electrical activity along the scalp) recorded children’s brain function for all trials. Children’s accuracy and reaction time were also recorded for go trials.

Research assistants blind to each child’s training program group administered the WPPSI-III subtests and go/no-go tasks prior to and after completion of the training program. Test order was randomized across children.

The researchers used two-way and three-way mixed-design analyses of variance (ANOVAs) to examine group differences in intelligence measures and executive function performance. Pearson correlations were computed to examine the relationship between executive function and change in intelligence scores.

A significant, positive correlation between change in verbal intelligence scores and change in peak P2 amplitude was found in the music group only, indicating increases in verbal ability were associated with increases in functional brain plasticity for children in the music program.

Limitations of the Research:

There is no mention of random assignment into the experimental or control groups, or any information about how the groups were created. Although training was short-term (i.e., 20 days), it was relatively intensive (i.e., two hours/day) therefore it may not be practical or feasible for the typical child of this age and for a school to administer. The researchers specified that a longer period of training may be required for visual-arts compared with music because visuo-motor skills are less-developed during this stage, and more time may be needed to see transfer of cognitive skills.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How long do the benefits in verbal ability last? What is the role of musical instruction? Will music-listening training in combination with other music instruction boost the verbal ability benefits? Will a less-intensive daily training schedule provide similar benefits to verbal ability? Will a longer period of training for the visual-arts program lead to verbal ability benefits similar to those seen here for music? Would the findings be similar for an older group of children whose visuo-motor skills were more developed?