Does music improve child brain development?

Dr. Assal Habibi THOUGHT LEADERS SERIES...insight from the world’s leading experts

An interview with Dr Assal Habibi conducted by April Cashin-Garbutt, MA (Cantab)

Can you please give an overview of your recent five-year study? What techniques did you use to monitor changes in the childrens’ brains?

We are a research group at the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California. In 2012, we began a five-year longitudinal study in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their Youth Orchestra program at the Heart of Los Angeles (YOLA at HOLA).

Our broad goal in this project was to investigate the impact of group-based music training on brain, cognitive, social and emotional development of children.

playing violin

We enrolled three groups of children between ages 6-7: the first group were part of the free community-based music program at YOLA at HOLA; a program that was inspired by the El Sistema method, one that LA Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel had been trained with in Venezuela.

The second group of children were about to begin a sports training program with a community based soccer program and were not engaged in music training.

And the third group of children were from public schools and community centres in the same areas of Los Angeles.

All three groups of children were from equally under-served and ethnic minority communities of Los Angeles.

We use neuroimaging (MRI/fMRI), neurophysiological (EEG) and psychological methods that are adopted for children to measure their brain, cognitive and social development.

Each year, we meet every participant and their families at our institute for a testing period over the course of 2-3 days. During this visit, we test each child separately and also conduct detailed interviews with their families.

What did your results show with regards to the impact of music instruction on children’s social, emotional and cognitive development?

At the onset of the study and prior to any training, we demonstrated that the children who were about to start music training were not different from the children in the other two groups in terms of cognitive, language, socio-emotional or brain development.

Recently we published the interim results of this ongoing study in an article in the Journal of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. We reported that after two years, the group of children who had undergone musical training were better at processing auditory information including pitch perception and discrimination.

We also observed that musically trained children had an accelerated maturation of the brain’s auditory pathway; in other words, they showed faster time course for reaching adult level of maturation in auditory areas of the brain.functional areas of brain

How do the study results compare to previous findings?

These preliminary results, support previous findings and suggest that music training during childhood, even for a period as brief as two years, can accelerate brain development and sound processing.

We believe, as it has been shown in other studies that this may benefit language acquisition, speech perception, reading readiness and consequently the intellectual development of children, all of which tend to be slower in children from underprivileged communities.

How long will the study be continuing for and what further insights do you hope to gain?

The current study is in its final stage of data collection; however we hope to continue to follow our participants to assess whether benefits of music training can serve as protective mechanisms during adolescents where cognitive and emotional control is more vulnerable and individuals tend to make more risky decisions.

Based on the current evidence, should parents and schools be encouraged to increase music education for children, or is further evidence needed first?

We hope that the findings from this study lead to a better understanding of the benefits of musical training and provide support for public policies that aim at making music education more accessible in particular in under-served communities.

pupil playing trumpet

How early is it thought that music can impact a child’s development? Is it likely that music can be beneficial to babies in the womb?

This is not specifically my line of expertise but there are excellent studies showing benefits of music exposure for babies and toddlers in early years of development.

Where can readers find more information?

About Dr Assal Habibi

Dr. Assal HabibiDr. Assal Habibi is a research scientist at the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California. Her research takes a broad perspective on understating child development.

She is interested in how biological dispositions and environment interact and how early childhood learning experiences shape the development of cognitive, emotional and social abilities.

She is an expert in the use of electrophysiological and neuroimaging methods to investigate human brain function and her research have been published in several peer reviewed journals.

Dr. Habibi completed her doctoral work at the UC Irvine Department of Cognitive Science, focusing on investigating the effects of long term musical training on pitch and rhythm processing by assessing brain activity during music listening in adult musicians, non-musicians and patients with auditory impairments.

Currently, along with Drs. Antonio and Hanna Damasio, she is the lead investigator of a 5-year longitudinal study investigating the effects of early childhood music training on the development of brain function and structure as well as cognitive, emotional, and social development.

Dr. Habibi is a classically trained pianist, and has many years of musical teaching experience with children which have always been a personal passion.

April Cashin-Garbutt

Written by

April Cashin-Garbutt

April graduated with a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. During her time as Editor-in-Chief, News-Medical (2012-2017), she kickstarted the content production process and helped to grow the website readership to over 60 million visitors per year. Through interviewing global thought leaders in medicine and life sciences, including Nobel laureates, April developed a passion for neuroscience and now works at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, located within UCL.


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