MUSIC EDUCATION

boy holding a guitar

Timeline: Cognitive Development of Music Skills

All musicians know on some deep, intuitive level that music has power—maybe especially for young children. It doesn’t surprise us that “Hush, Little Baby” can calm a fussy infant, that the “Clean-Up Song” almost magically gets toddlers to put their toys away and that “The Wheels on the Bus” makes a long car ride more fun. Children teach each other rhythmic clapping games like Miss Mary Mac, and for decades, they have cheerfully taunted each other by singing about two kids sitting in a tree, “k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”

And although most people don’t need scientific research to prove that music is powerful and important, there is plenty of evidence that shows just how crucial music is to cognitive development in early childhood. Indeed, the positive effects of music on child development are increasingly well-documented—even if it’s still not entirely clear why the human brain responds so readily and fully to music.

The Effects of Music on the Brain

In the 1990s, research suggested that listening to classical music—and specifically the almost mathematically precise works of Mozart—would make babies smarter. This resulted in a flood of recordings, some even meant to be played to unborn babies. There does seem to be some truth to this phenomenon (sometimes called “the Mozart effect”), but more recent research shows that almost any music has positive effects on cognitive development. 

Basically, there’s no specific child-development music that will magically create brilliant and successful children, but that doesn’t mean that parents and teachers shouldn’t foster the wonderful connection between music and cognitive development in early childhood. The effects of music on the brain are very exciting and far reaching.

In fact, children who participate in music programs from an early age reap a wide variety of potential benefits, including early language development, an increased ability to learn foreign languages, stronger connections between brain hemispheres (which helps regulate mood and behavior) and possibly even (later on) higher scores on standardized tests such as the SATs. 

These benefits last well into adulthood and even old age because when a brain builds more neural pathways early on, that brain is better able to retain new information and resist the deterioration of memory.

The Effects of Music on Child Development by Age

While everyone, regardless of age, can benefit from the positive effects of music on the brain (such as improved mood, memory and even physical endurance), how music supports the growing brain is especially interesting. 

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget described four stages of human cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. He theorized that as babies grow into children and then into adults, they expand their awareness from their immediate selves to the world around them, gradually extending their sense of what’s real and permanent. He also observed that babies start out very concrete in their thinking and become more capable of abstract thought as they grow.

What this means for music and cognitive development in early childhood and beyond is that as children develop, their brains focus on different tasks, a process music can encourage and accelerate.

For ages 0 to 2, music programs can encourage language and sensory development, and create bonding opportunities for parents.

Music & Brain Development in Children: Ages 0–2

Babies are born musical. It seems to be hardwired into the human brain. Very young children process language in a part of the brain that overlaps with language development, which is possibly why exposure to music can encourage language development. Just as babies babble as they try to learn words, they can babble musically, essentially testing their ability to reproduce the music that is shared with them. This babbling helps babies tone the muscles they need to speak—and to sing.

During these early months, children are in what Piaget called the sensorimotor phase of development. They are learning to experience the world and move through it, figuring out where they end and where the world outside them begins. Music stimulates a baby’s sensory experience and provides opportunities to practice their motor skills, by (for example) moving to the beat. By supporting the natural connection between toddlers and music, parents can lay the groundwork for a lifelong love of music—and a host of cognitive benefits.

Another lovely effect of music on the brains of the very young is one the parents share. When a parent sings or moves in time to the music with a baby, both brains release oxytocin, a bonding hormone that offers a sense of peace and well-being.

For ages 2 to 6, music programs can teach collaborative skills, teach turn-taking, and improve the brain's ability to grow.

Music & Brain Development in Children: Ages 2–6

In the preoperational stage of cognitive development, children start moving through the world with greater physical confidence. They understand that they can use words to represent objects, and that kicks language development into high gear. Just as it did with infants, music can help toddlers and young children further develop their ear—their ability to process fine distinctions in sound.

Children between the ages of 2 and 6 still see themselves as the center of the universe, so it can be hard for them to share toys or play cooperative games. This is another way in which music can really boost development. Making music together—by singing the same song, for example, or using percussion instruments to keep time—is a form of parallel play. Children can cooperate without needing to share or take turns, something they’re struggling to learn. On the older end of this stage of development, parents and teachers can use call-and-response songs to encourage turn taking. 

This is an ideal time to start learning an instrument. Playing any instrument—whether piccolo or piano—requires fine motor skills, good hand-eye coordination and a strong brain-body connection. Children who start learning an instrument before the age of 7 seem to have greater neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow, change, and even heal itself) throughout their lives. This is just one of many effects of music on the brain that they can benefit from for years to come. It’s important, however, to keep these lessons fun. Children learn best through play, and should experiment with as many different instruments as possible. That’s why music programs for first- and second-graders like the Rookies Program are designed to show kids just how much fun it is to play music.

For ages 7 to 11, music programs can: help with logic, improve hand-eye coordination, and improve focus and listening skills.

Music & Brain Development in Children: Ages 7–11

The effects of music on early child development continue into the concrete operational phase of cognitive growth—the phase when children begin to master logical and mathematical thinking. Children in this age range love to solve puzzles, to see how the parts of something can make up a whole. 

That means they’re likely to enjoy learning harmonies or working in small music ensembles where each instrument has a different part to play. Children who make music in a group (such as a school orchestra, a local choir, a string quartet or a rock band) learn as much about teamwork as those who play sports.

Children also continue to benefit from practicing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Young musicians develop a greater ability to pick out words in a noisy environment, which might mean they’re more able to focus on a teacher’s words and thus do better in their academic classes.

For ages 12 and up, music program can: enhance memory, teach discipline and patience, and promote cross-cultural awareness.

Music & Brain Development in Children: Ages 12+

The positive effects of music on child development extend well into adolescence (and even adulthood). A study from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies suggests that the brains of adolescents who participate in music programs develop more quickly, which can improve their language skills, test-taking ability and even self-regulation—and that can help keep teens safe at a time when they’re subject to poor impulse control and peer pressure. 

During this formal operational stage of cognitive development, children can benefit from learning music theory because they’re equipped to fully grasp abstract concepts. In addition, from now through adulthood, cognitive development is linked to the accumulation of knowledge, so teen musicians can begin to build up a repertoire of songs they can play without additional preparation.

On a social level, teens can use music to bond with one another at a time when friends are important and emotions are running high. Teens who play music together are not just fostering friendships with their peers but also learning to keep their cool during negotiations and listen carefully to one another—because that’s the only way to make music. In addition, teens often use music to distinguish themselves from their parents, which allows them to own and grow into their individual identities.

FAQs about Music & Cognitive Development

Music and cognitive development clearly go hand in hand, but there are still so many fascinating questions about how music encourages early childhood development and what skills it nurtures.

How does music help in child development?

This is an extraordinarily complex question, but luckily, it’s one that science is increasingly well-equipped to answer through the use of more sophisticated brain scans and electroencephalography (the measurement of the electrical activity of the brain). Still, exactly how music helps in child development is not yet fully understood. 

One theory is that music, particularly playing music, strengthens the connection between a child’s sense of hearing and the brain’s ability to process sounds. In other words, it’s one thing to hear music and another to fully process its intricacies. 

Another is that music builds neural pathways throughout the brain, but especially in the corpus callosum, a band of tissue that connects the left brain to the right. This, neurologists believe, conveys a whole range of benefits, including increased problem-solving ability and greater emotional resilience.

What skills does music develop?

Music develops a huge range of skills, some that specifically benefit musicians and others that can help anyone. Music teaches: 

It fosters self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-expression. There is almost no aspect of human cognition and development that can’t be improved by listening to—and even more so, learning to play—music.

Are music and movement important for preschoolers?

The one-word answer is yes. Toddlers and music go together like milk and cookies. The preschool years can be a very exciting time because children are eager to soak up information. They gain so much information through their senses, and they want to move freely, touch (and sometimes taste) everything, make their opinions heard and explore the world. They’re still learning to coordinate their limbs, and rhythmic movement can help them sort out their gross motor skills. Preschoolers are still amazed at the sounds they can produce, so they’re eager singers (or shouters) and composers of music. 

This is a great time to expose children to a wide variety of musical styles and activities. On long car trips, play a variety of music. Let children turn pans and empty coffee cans into makeshift drum kits. Help them build shakers with beans and paper towel tubes. Kazoos, recorders and harmonicas are all inexpensive and will satisfy a preschooler’s love of making noise.

There’s also no shortage of traditional childhood tunes that will both entertain and educate preschoolers. Toddlers and small children love to do things with their grown-ups, so make music together. Sing marching songs like “The Ants Go Marching” or “The Grand Old Duke of York” or movement songs like “This Little Teapot,” “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “John Brown’s Baby.” There are even songs that teach basic language and skills, such as the ABC song or “Five Little Monkeys.”

If nothing else, establishing a love of music now will prepare them for success in more formal music lessons later on.

How do music programs help students?

Music programs for preschoolers and kids  give students the chance to learn a wide variety of skills—and, equally importantly, allow children to have fun while they learn. In addition to reinforcing all the cognitive benefits children gain from simply listening to music, making music with others encourages teamwork and cooperation, fosters a stronger sense of rhythm, and reinforces communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal.

Some students are lucky enough to attend schools that, despite the demands on their budgets, support their music programs and encourage musical skill development. Even those students, however, can benefit from additional music lessons and immersive instruction such as that provided by School of Rock. From increased persistence to better memory function to superior abstract reasoning, music programs provide students with an incredible variety of benefits.

In some ways, it’s easiest to see the connection between music and cognitive development in early childhood because children are growing so quickly and hitting milestones in such quick succession. However, every age of child can benefit from the helpful effects of music on the brain. There are so many ways to make music a part of children’s lives—formal music lessons, singalongs, campfire drum circles or even just listening to great recordings while making supper or doing homework—and their lives will be all the richer for it.

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