Research Article: Contributions of age of start, cognitive abilities and practice to musical task performance in childhood

Date Published: April 25, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Kierla Ireland, Thanya A. Iyer, Virginia B. Penhune, Lutz Jäncke.


Studies with adult musicians show that beginning lessons before age seven is associated with better performance on musical tasks and enhancement in auditory and motor brain regions. It is hypothesized that early training interacts with periods of heightened neural development to promote greater plasticity and better learning and performance later in life. However, we do not know whether such effects can be observed in childhood. Moreover, we do not know the degree to which such effects are related to training, or whether early training has different effects on particular musical skills depending on their cognitive, perceptual or motor requirements. To address these questions, we compared groups of child musicians who had started lessons earlier or later on age-normed tests of rhythm synchronization and melody discrimination. We also matched for age, years of experience, working memory and global cognitive ability. Results showed that children who started early performed better on simple melody discrimination and that scores on this task were predicted by both age of start (AoS) and cognitive ability. There was no effect of AoS for the more complex rhythm or transposed melody tasks, but these scores were significantly predicted by working memory ability, and for transposed melodies, by hours of weekly practice. These findings provide the first evidence that earlier AoS for music training in childhood results in enhancement of specific musical skills. Integrating these results with those for adult musicians, we hypothesize that early training has an immediate impact on simple melody discrimination skills that develop early, while more complex abilities, like synchronization and transposition require both further maturation and additional training.

Partial Text

Studies in adults show that musicians who begin training before age seven show enhancements in behaviour and brain structure compared with those who begin later [1–6]. Based on this evidence, it is hypothesized that training during specific periods of brain maturation in childhood lead to greater plasticity and thus better learning and performance in the long term. However, all previous studies demonstrating the impact of early training are in adults with more than 10 years of experience; thus we do not know whether early training has immediate effects in childhood, or whether those effects require additional maturation and/or long-term practice to develop. Further, we do not know whether early training has different effects on specific musical skills depending on their cognitive, perceptual or motor requirements. Therefore, in this study we compared performance on tests of musical ability in groups of children who began lessons earlier or later but who were matched for years of experience and other relevant training and cognitive factors. In addition to standard matched-group comparisons we also used regression to assess the differential contribution of cognitive measures and training.

The results of this study showed that children who began training before age seven performed better on a simple melody discrimination task than those who started later, after being matched for musical training, demographic and cognitive variables. Further, both AoS and a measure of global intellectual function independently predicted scores on this task. There were no group differences or effects of AoS for the more complex rhythm synchronization and transposed melody discrimination tasks, but these were significantly predicted by working memory ability. Additionally, weekly practice was a strong independent predictor of transposed melody discrimination. These results provide clear evidence for the important contributions of maturational, training and cognitive factors in predicting musical task performance.




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