How does music help with executive function skills?


Kids brains develop so quickly through the age of 6. The leaps and bounds that I see in children that take our Kindermusik classes is amazing. We know that they are little sponges at this young age. During those early years, it can be easy to feel that if we don’t cram their little brains with as much experiences as possible that our kids will miss out on developing a key skill.

But our brains are not considered fully formed until age 22. So you don’t need to feel that you started too late or missed out if you didn’t start music classes as a baby. During childhood, your child’s brain is still pruning and wiring the brain. The brain is speeding up electrical impulses and stabilizing neural connections. It’s also working on fully developing executive function skills that are so essential to being a successful adult. And music can help with this development. I’ve seen music help teenagers and young adults become more focused and help with their school work.

Skills music develops

There are three types of executive function skills. These skills need to work together so that people can apply them successfully.

  • Working memory – Ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
  • Mental flexibility – Ability to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
  • Self-controlAbility to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

You use executive function to perform activities that you typically associate with business executives (although the name doesn’t come from that) such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, these are skills and processes each of us use every day to:

  • Make plans
  • Keep track of time and finish our work on time
  • Keep track of more than one thing at once
  • Meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
  • Evaluate ideas and reflect on our work
  • Ask for help or seek more information when we need it
  • Engage in group dynamics
  • Wait to speak until we’re called on
  • Make mid-course corrections while thinking, reading and writing

How we develop these skills

According to the Harvard Center of the Developing Child, “Children aren’t born with these (executive function) skills—they are born with the potential to develop them.” And that’s excellent news! Like any muscle, children can exercise their brains to develop executive function skills. They can build these muscles during activities that foster

  • Creative play and social connection, which can be found in Kindermusik group classes
  • Stress coping techniques, needed when learning an instrument like piano  
  • Vigorous exercise that can be had while dancing in class
  • Self direction with decreasing adult supervision, which comes as children progress in their instrument playing capabilities.

Backed by research

And music classes come with an additional benefit that other kids’ activities don’t have. Scientific research has shown that music classes help the brain to develop faster. According to the study’s author Nadine Gaab, PhD, from the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts, “The most important part of the study is that it showed that musicians, both children and adults, had better executive functioning skills than nonmusicians, and that the brain of the child with musical training showed more activation and looked more mature in terms of executive functioning networks.”

The research also shows that musicians have enhanced general cognitive, academic, and language abilities. Executive function skills needed to play an instrument may help develop these abilities. Playing a musical instrument requires

  • Sustained attention
  • Determination to sit and learn an instrument
  • Learning to read and memorize music
  • Long-term determination to master a skill
  • Ability to quickly switch tempos, music styles, and rhythm

These musical and executive function skills are practiced in all our Kindermusik classes, demanding more at higher levels, and further honed in our piano lessons.

It’s clear that the science backs up my observations that music gives children lifelong benefits in all aspects of their lives. The younger you enroll your child into a music class the longer they have to better develop those brain pathways and executive function skills. But as the research shows, giving your child the gift of music will help them throughout their childhood, adolescence, and into early adulthood.

Written by Amelia Vitarelli, owner and educator of My Little Conservatory in San Jose, CA. Amelia has been enriching the lives of children in Silicon Valley for over 20 years.