Here is a bright light in 2020. This study is one of the first randomised studies that compares an instrumental music program during class (in this case, a string-based program) with a music appreciation type of classroom program. The study followed the students for two years and measured how the different types of music learning impacted on several executive function skills.
First of all, why all the hype about a randomised study? A randomised study is one where the participants in either the instrumental or appreciation music programs are randomly assigned, rather than choosing how they would like to learn music. This type of design takes away a lot of variables such as interest, motivation and parental support and means we can see more clearly what the impact of the different ways of learning music might have on executive function skills.
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Second of all, which executive function skills did they measure? The suite of executive function skills include attention, inhibitory control, reasoning and planning, so there is a lot to choose from. In this study, they focused on working memory, attention, cognitive flexibility and coordination.
Finally, what did they find? After two years of music learning, both for two 45-minute lessons per week within the curriculum time, they found that the instrumental group, consisting of violin and cellos, had greater improvement than the music appreciation class in working memory, attention, processing speed, cognitive flexibility, matrix reasoning, sensorimotor hand function, and bimanual coordination. The combination of these improved skills can lead to learning new concepts more quickly, integrating new ideas into their memory systems more effectively and being able to solve problems through both analytical and creative processing.
The students in this study learned music in their middle school years of 10-12 years, and with this enhanced combination of skills, they would be very prepared to take on the increased complexity of learning into their high school years.
And they would have a great appreciation and hopefully a love for their string instruments. Strings for the WIN!