By: Zachary Cottrell, Psy.D., LMHC
Pediatric Neuropsychology Fellow, NESCA
At NESCA, we work with many children with ADHD and issues with executive functions. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of interventions that can be used to aid executive function development, such as martial arts, aerobics, yoga, mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, another option to keep in mind is learning a musical instrument. Most children are naturally drawn to music, and recent research suggests that musical training can positively influence the development of executive functions.
In 2014, Dr. Nadine Gaab at Boston Children’s Hospital found that adult musicians had stronger working memory, greater cognitive flexibility and verbal fluency than non-musicians. Child musicians showed better verbal fluency and faster processing speed than non-musicians. fMRI scans showed that child musicians have more activation in the frontal regions of the brain – the home of executive functions – than non-musicians. Dr. Gaab’s study concludes that children who study music have stronger executive function skills and that studying music may build those skills. For the full details and results of the study, a link is provided below.
In another 2014 study, Dr. James Hudziak at the University of Vermont found that playing a musical instrument was associated with more rapid cortical thickness maturation within the areas of motor planning and coordination, visuo-spatial ability, and emotion and impulse regulation, the latter being correlated with increased executive functions. For the full details and results of the study, a link is provided below.
So, what do these studies really show us? Basically, learning a musical instrument can improve and strengthen our executive functions, such as planning and organizing, working memory, processing speed, task management and initiation as a whole. Musical performance requires a high level of active engagement, which leads to less off-task behaviors. While engaging in music, the individual is more likely to be practicing such skills as attending, inhibiting and shifting. Additionally, musical training involves significant demands on working memory for processing auditory, visual and tactile cues simultaneously. Working memory is required for learning any complex activity, such as understanding language. There are plenty of research studies that show correlating executive skills in musicians and bilinguals.
In my experience as a therapist and when teaching music, these skills are highly translatable to other forms of learning. Music is not only rewarding and fun, but is also effective in developing and improving executive functions. Below are some links for further reading and exploration.
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin
Investigating the impact of a musical intervention on preschool children’s executive function (Bowmer, et al., 2018)
Behavioral and neural correlates of executive functioning in musicians and non-musicians (Dr. Nadine Gaad, et al., 2014)
Cortical thickness maturation and duration of music training: health-promoting activities shape brain development (Dr. James Hudziak, et al., 2014)
About the Author:
Formerly a therapist, Dr. Cottrell has extensive experience working with children, adolescents and emerging adults as a therapist, behavioral health consultant and evaluator in community, college, private practice and hospital settings. At NESCA, he provides thorough and in-depth neuropsychological evaluations to support youth to not only develop, but also to maximize, their potential. Dr. Cottrell is a graduate of William James College, participating in the Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology Program. Dr. Cottrell also has 25 years of experience with the guitar, performing and teaching music.
Dr. Cottrell recently completed a 2 year APA internship placement at North Shore Medical Center (Salem, Mass.) where he was immersed in the world of neuropsychological, personality, psychological and educational testing at the Neuropsychological Assessment Center at MassGeneral for Children. While there, Dr. Cottrell’s work predominantly involved providing evaluation and consultation to children, adolescents and adults with ADHD, ASD, learning disabilities and other neurocognitive developmental and behavioral concerns in addition to providing psychological evaluations to adult patients considering bariatric surgical procedures.
To book an evaluation with Zachary Cottrell one of our expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email email@example.com or call 617-658-9800.
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