Piro, J. M., & Ortiz, C. (2009). The effect of piano lessons on the vocabulary and verbal sequencing skills of primary grade students. Psychology of Music, 37(3), 325.


The researchers used a quasi-experimental research design to investigate if students who received in-school keyboard lessons as part of a sequential music program would demonstrate greater gains on measures of vocabulary and verbal sequencing than students who did not receive keyboard instruction. Vocabulary and verbal sequencing are foundational components of literacy development and subsequent acquisition of proficient reading and language arts skills.

The researchers assigned treatment and control groups from two intact large public elementary schools in the same middle-class area of New York City. Participants in the control group attended a school that did not offer music instruction. The treatment group attended a school that offered music, specifically keyboard instruction, for all students as part of a uniform curriculum.

The researchers collected data through pre- and post-test administration of subsets of the Meeker Structure of Intellect, specifically the general vocabulary and verbal sequencing subtests. The treatment group scored higher on the post-test verbal sequencing and vocabulary subtests than did their counterparts in the control group.

Key Findings:

Children in the treatment group who received three successive years of music training outperformed their control group counterparts on the standardized subtests for vocabulary and verbal sequencing.

The treatment group made significant gains on the vocabulary subtest from pre- to post-test, whereas the scores in the control group remained mostly static. The effect may be explained in that children in the treatment group were exposed to significantly more and varied aural information and auditory stimulation that has been demonstrated to develop better verbal memory. The control group did not receive the same amount of auditory stimulation and therefore did not develop the same capacity for verbal memory as the treatment group.

Significance of the Findings:

The study adds a fine-toothed perspective to the body of research that documents music’s positive impact on general language arts skills. The findings suggest that the complementary combination of music and literacy instruction strengthens neural codes in areas of the brain used to process both music and reading. The significant pre-/post-test gains of children who received instrumental training on the vocabulary test may be attributed to the auditory stimulation they received as part of musical training, which in turn improved verbal memory skills. The study adds to evidence and highlights the potential for research on the neuroscience behind music and language arts skills, which in turn can provide a deeper understanding of how the brain works and how students learn.


The researcher employed a quasi-experimental design in which participants in both treatment and control groups attended two large public elementary schools in the same middle-class area of New York City. The treatment group consisted of 46 second-grade children in a school that offered formal music instruction in piano for all students as part of a uniform curriculum. Students received two music instructional periods of 40-45 minutes each week for the duration of the school year. The control group included 57 children who attended a school that did not offer formal musical training on any musical instrument. Both schools followed similar comprehensive balanced literacy programs, which included daily lessons in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

The researchers gathered data through pre-and posttests at the beginning and close of a traditional ten- month school year. The researchers used the vocabulary and verbal sequencing subtests of the standardized Meeker Structure of Intellect measure. Data were analyzed and compared using multiple statistical analyses to discern patterns and gains in pre- to post-test scores.

Limitations of the Research:

The overall design of the study did not employ random assignment to treatment and control groups, but used intact schools. It is therefore possible that the observed differences between the treatment and control groups were an artifact of a difference between the two schools (for example, their class size, leadership, or teaching staff) rather than an outcome of music instruction. The quasi-experimental design also does not fully control for confounding variables such as socioeconomic status, though both schools were geographically and demographically similar. The pre-test was administered at the beginning of the third year of the program, when students in the treatment school had already received two years of music instruction. Though the treatment students were two years into music instruction, the pre-test for both treatment and control groups did not show much significant difference. The researchers offer explanations for the level scores at the beginning of year three, but the findings may be weakened by this limitation.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Can specific neural processes be identified that are used and reinforced in both music performance and English language arts skills? How does music impact the structure and function of areas of the brain also used in vocabulary and verbal sequencing? Does sustained and intensive music instruction and practice have a positive correlation to increased skills in language arts over a prolonged period of time? Are the impacts of music on vocabulary and verbal reasoning applicable to other areas and skills in language arts? How does music compare to other art forms in terms of language arts skills development?