The Science Behind the Benefits of Childhood Piano Lessons

Piano teachers and children’s music educators don’t need to be reminded of how beneficial piano lessons are for childhood development. Many of the benefits can be easily seen in the classroom, from increased self-esteem to enhanced social skills. Researchers have long studied the effect of piano lessons on childhood development, finding many cognitive benefits that may not be so obvious to the occasional observer. Here are three of the science backed benefits of learning piano in childhood.

  1. The Mozart Effect on Spatial Reasoning – In a controversial 1993 study, a researcher named FH Rauscher claimed that after listening to two Mozart piano sonatas for 10 minutes, subjects exhibited improved spatial reasoning skills (such as paper folding and cutting procedures, or stacking blocks in a predetermined sequence).  This effect, dubbed the Mozart Effect, opened the door to a multitude of cognitive studies on various subjects including adult humans and rats. Many of these experiments showed the increased spatial reasoning for only a short duration. However, in 1999 the long-terms effects were studied in three to four year old pre-school children who were given keyboard music lessons for six months. When subjected to spatial temporal reasoning tests afterward, the children showed thirty percent better performance than children who had not had piano training.       
  • Music Lessons Increase IQ and Executive Function – In a research article published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, three researchers studied one hundred and forty-seven primary school children with an average age of 6.5 years. They were divided into three groups – one music intervention groups, one active visual arts group, and a no arts control group. The researchers found that in the musical intervention group, children not only performed better in visual spatial memory tasks, but also showed increased testing scores on inhibition, planning, and verbal intelligence. The researchers’ conclusion was that the study indicated a positive effect of long-term music education on cognitive abilities. Through magnetic resonance imaging and neuropsychological testing, another research project showed higher activation of areas of the brain typically associated with Executive Functioning, such as the prefrontal cortex, in child musicians. They attribute it to the extended attention, working memory, and inhibition of playing piano or singing. 
  • Piano Lessons Build and Enhance Language Skills – Two researchers from MITs McGovern Institute for Brain Research published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that concluded that early exposure to piano practice enhances the processing of sounds in language. As kids ears become trained to distinguish between different tones from the hundreds of internal strings of a piano, they also get better at discriminating subtle differences between spoken words. For the study, seventy-four Mandarin-Speaking kindergarteners were divided into three groups – one that took 45-minute piano lessons every week, the second had reading instruction for the same duration, and the third had neither. After six months, the researchers found that children who took the piano lessons were specifically better at spoken words that differentiated by only one consonant than the other two groups. Consonants require a bit more precision to distinguish than vowels, especially in Mandarin speakers where the language relies heavily on differences in tone. The results of this study were so remarkable that the school in Beijing where the research was conducted continued to offer piano lessons to students after the experiment ended.

Teachers of early childhood music education have always understood the benefits that piano lessons provide to healthy child development. And through years of structured research and publication, scientists have shown substantial evidence that music education and piano lessons enhance spatial reasoning, executive function, IQ, and language skills in children.