[Position Paper]

The Impact of Actively Making Music on The Intellectual, Social and Personal Development of Children and Young People: A Summary

By Susan Hallam


This paper provides a summary of the report "The power of music: A research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people" (Hallam, 2014), which is freely available on the world wide web. Readers interested in the way that active music making can impact on children and young people are advised to read the full report.

Keywords: academic achievement, cognitive benefit, power of music

Editorial note: In 2016, Voices hosted a special edition to accompany the launch of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the topic of "How Music Can Change Your Life". Thirteen authors agreed to develop position papers for the MOOC, with two articles being developed to accompany each of the six topics within it. Each author has highlighted the theorists and researchers who have influenced their thinking, and included references to their own research or music practices where appropriate. These papers have been written with a particular audience in mind—that is, the learners who participate in the MOOC, who may not have had previous readings in any of the fields being canvassed. We hope that you find these articles interesting, whether reading as a MOOC learner, a regular VOICES reader, or someone who is discovering VOICES for the first time.

The development of electronic media in the latter part of the 20th century revolutionised access to and use of music in our everyday lives. We can turn on the radio, play a CD, download music from the internet onto an iPod®, or listen to music on video or TV with very little effort. This has not always been the case. Prior to these developments, music was only accessible for most people if they made it themselves or attended particular religious or social events. The effect of these changes has been dramatic. It is now possible for individuals to use music to manipulate personal moods, arousal and feelings, and create environments which may manipulate the ways that other people feel and behave.

Neuroscientific research has demonstrated the way in which the cerebral cortex self-organises in response to external stimuli and the learning activities engaged in by individuals. The brain responds quickly to engagement with musical activities but permanent and substantial reorganisation of brain functioning takes considerable time. Overall, the evidence from neuroscience suggests that each individual has a specific learning biography that is reflected in the way the brain processes information (Altenmuller, 2003, p. 349). As individuals engage with different musical activities over long periods of time permanent changes occur in the brain. These changes reflect what has been learned and how it has been learned. They also influence the extent to which developed skills are able to transfer to other activities.

Transfer of Learning

The transfer of learning from one domain to another depends on the similarities between the processes involved. Transfer can be near or far and is stronger and more likely to occur if it is near. Far transfer may occur in relation to the impact of making music on intelligence and attainment, while high road transfer may also occur in relation to self-regulatory and meta-cognitive skills. Low road transfer depends on automated skills and is relatively spontaneous and automatic, while high road transfer requires reflection and conscious processing.

Some musical skills (near and low road) are more likely to transfer than others, for instance, those relating to the perceptual processing of sound (timing, pitch, timbre, and rule governed grouping information), fine motor skills, emotional sensitivity, conceptions of relationships between written materials and sound (reading music and text), and memorisation of extended information (music and text) (Norton et al., 2005).

Methodological Issues in Research

Research exploring the ways in which active engagement with music impacts beyond the development of musical skills has been undertaken within a number of disciplines and paradigms. The designs and methods adopted vary widely as do the sizes of the samples of participants. The different approaches adopted can lead to different and sometimes conflicting findings. Much early research considering the impact of engaging with music on other skills was based on correlation studies undertaken with professional or young musicians with varying levels of expertise. Some research has made comparisons between groups identified as musicians or non-musicians. Experimental studies where the outcomes of musical interventions are compared with those where there is no musical intervention offer the possibility of establishing causality. Such studies vary in the length of the intervention, the range of measures adopted to measure outcomes and the ages of the participants. This can produce conflicting evidence. Qualitative research (interviews, focus groups, ethnographic, and case studies) is able to provide insights into the perceptions of participants and the contexts within which music may have a wider impact. All of this research has the potential to make a contribution to our developing understanding of the nature of transfer of musical expertise to other domains and skills albeit in different ways and has been included in this review.

Aural Perception and Language Skills

Musical training sharpens the brain’s early encoding of sound leading to enhanced performance on a range of listening skills improving the ability to distinguish between rapidly changing sounds and enhancing auditory discrimination, thus having an impact on the cortical processing of linguistic pitch patterns. There is now considerable accumulated evidence that active engagement with music in childhood produces structural changes in the brain which are related to the processing of sound and that these changes can occur after a short period of time (e.g. Moreno & Besson, 2006). The quality of aural encoding is related to the amount of musical training (Wong et al., 2007), and the nature of instrumental requirements (Rauscher & Hinton, 2011). A number of studies have focused on the development of musical skills and auditory discrimination in young children. For instance, Trainor and colleagues (2003) found that 4-year olds who had received Suzuki training had a better-developed auditory cortex and were able to discriminate better between sounds.

The Development of Phonological Skills

The auditory analysis skills used in language processing (phonological distinctions, blending, and segmentation of sounds) are similar to the skills necessary for the perception of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic discrimination. A number of studies have specifically explored the relationship between phonological awareness and musical ability. Cross sectional studies have shown that children with musical experience are able to make stronger distinctions between speech syllables than those without (e.g. Strait & Kraus, 2014).

The Development of Literacy Skills

Correlation studies have suggested that there are relationships between musical skills and various skills related to literacy including verbal and auditory working memory (e.g. Butzlaff, 2000). However, where research has attempted to demonstrate causality, the findings have been mixed. For instance, Elliot and Mikulas (2014) investigated the effectiveness of an integrated music curriculum within a preschool setting on language and literacy skills. The students in the treatment group showed significantly greater gains in language and literacy with a small to medium effect. However, Butzlaff (2000) found no causal effects in a meta-analysis of six experimental studies which varied in the type of musical training and the reading tests used;, although a later meta-analysis (Standley, 2008) of 30 experimental studies found a strong overall effect.

Reading requires the development of both decoding and comprehension skills. Decoding skills are a prerequisite for being able to comprehend. Musical training may have a differential impact on these. Corrigall and Trainor (2011), examining the association between length of music training and reading ability in 46, 6–9 year old children enrolled in music lessons, found that length of training correlated significantly with reading comprehension but was not associated with word decoding scores. These findings were robust even after age and socioeconomic status, auditory perception, word decoding, general intelligence, and the number of hours spent reading each week were taken into account.

Research on children experiencing difficulties with reading has shown improvement after engaging with music. For instance, Long (2014) studied 15 children identified as poor readers by their school who demonstrated statistically significant gains in reading comprehension, accuracy, and rate of reading following a rhythmic music intervention. Comprehension and rate of reading had large effect sizes. Miendlarewska and Trost (2014) in a review suggested that rhythmic entrainment is an essential mechanism supporting the learning and development of executive functions that may underlie enhancements in reading and verbal memory.

There has been little focus on the impact of active engagement with music on spelling or writing in comparison with reading. It is impossible to draw any firm conclusions.

Aural and Visual Memory

Musical training has been found to have long-term, positive effects on auditory memory. Children with musical training have significantly better verbal learning and retention abilities. In a typical intervention study, Roden and colleagues (2014) investigated the influence of group instrumental training on the working memory of children. The music group showed a greater increase on every measure of verbal memory (verbal learning, delayed recall, recognition) than science and control groups. There were large effect sizes. These differences remained when the statistical modelling took into account age and measured intelligence. The evidence related to visual memory is mixed. This may be because of the different methods used and the nature of the musical training particularly the extent to which it involves learning to read musical notation.

Spatial Reasoning and Mathematical Performance

Spatial Abilities

The evidence for the impact of active engagement with music on spatial reasoning is compelling. For instance, in a review of 15 studies Hetland (2000) found a strong and reliable relationship and concluded that music instruction leads to dramatic improvements in performance on spatial-temporal measures. She commented on the consistency of the effects and likened them to differences of one inch in height or about 84 points on the SAT (p. 221). She showed that the effects were likely to be stronger among younger children (3–5 years) than those aged 6–12 years. The consistency of these findings suggests a near transfer, automated effect.

Mathematical Performance

The evidence for the impact of musical activity on mathematics performance is mixed. One of the reasons for the low levels of association between musical training and mathematics may be that musical training is associated with some aspects of mathematics, but not others. For instance, Bahna-James (1991) found that high-school students’ music theory grades correlated with their grades in algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus, but not with grades on an advanced mathematics course on logic. Similarly, Bahr and Christensen (2000) reported that performance on a mathematics test and a musicianship rating scale correlated in areas where music and maths shared structural overlap in pattern recognition and symbol usage, but not for other areas of mathematics where there was no overlap. Courey and colleagues (2012) found that musical concepts could be positively used to support the understanding of fractions. Playing an instrument seems to have a greater impact than other activities, and the length of engagement and level of commitment are also important.

Intellectual Development

Intervention studies with children have shown that active engagement with music can impact on IQ scores, particularly on elements related to spatial reasoning (e.g. Kaviani et al., 2014). If the quality of music tuition is poor and unstructured, there is no impact. The evidence suggests that the longer the training the greater the impact and that the relationships between musical training and intelligence remain when a range of confounding variables related to family background are taken into account (e.g. Schellenberg & Mankarious, 2012).

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning and self-regulation may act as mediators of the impact of musical engagement on intelligence. Executive functions are related to working memory and also involve the conscious control of action, thoughts, emotions, and general abilities such as planning, the capacity to ignore irrelevant information, to inhibit incorrect automatic responses, and to solve problems. Executive functions also include cognitive flexibility—the ability to adjust to novel or changing task demands. Playing a musical instrument, particularly in an ensemble requires many subskills associated with executive functioning including sustained attention, goal-directed behaviour, and cognitive flexibility. Formal music practice involves cognitive challenge, controlled attention for long periods of time, keeping musical passages in working memory or encoding them into long-term memory, and decoding musical scores and translating them into motor programmes. Supporting this, some intervention studies have shown greater improvements in children who participate in making music in some executive functions as compared with controls (e.g. Moreno, Bialystok, et al., 2011; Moreno, Friesen et al., 2011). Overall, the jury is still out on the possible impact of music training on executive functions and their relationship with measured intelligence; although it is clear that musical training enhanced some elements of executive functioning.


There is relatively little research on the relationship between musical learning and creativity. Such as there is suggests that where creativity is enhanced the greater the engagement with music the stronger the relationship. The development of creative skills is likely to be particularly dependent on the type of musical engagement. Where the music making is creative (e.g. improvisation) the effects are likely to be stronger (Koutsoupidou & Hargreaves, 2009).

The Impact on Attainment at School

The evidence from correlation studies suggests that children who experience musical training have advantages in their attainment at school across all school subjects, except sport, even after general intelligence is controlled for (Wetter et al., 2009). However, the relationship may not be causal, as more able children may be more attracted to musical activities. Evidence from music intervention studies has tended to show that those participating in music groups attainer higher scores or grades than those who are acting as controls, although there are exceptions. High quality musical activities seem to affect aspirations that enhance motivation and subsequently attainment across other school subjects. Research with a range of disadvantaged groups supports this. Overall, the evidence suggests a positive relationship between active music making and general attainment at school. What underpins this relationship is less clear. Other factors, for instance, transfer of aural, phonemic, spatial, and memory skills, or those relating to planning, motivation, or changed aspirations may mediate the relationship.

Educational Motivation and Re-Engagement of The Disaffected

There is evidence that musical activities can be effective in reengaging disaffected students, including those in the criminal justice system (see Daykin et al., 2011). Music offers the potential for enhanced self-efficacy, self-esteem and self-concept, improvements in mood, reduced anger, increased motivation, and improved behaviour. The impact is in part mediated by the extent that young people have ownership of the music. This varies across contexts and is influenced by a range of factors, including the skills and approaches of those leading projects. Research with young people not in education, employment, or training, otherwise known as NEETs has indicated that those participants’ self-confidence and aspirations are enhanced following active engagement with making music. Outcomes include increased motivation to engage in education, employment, or voluntary activity including gaining qualifications, heightened aspirations, and a more positive attitude towards learning. Participants also developed a range of transferable skills (see Qa Research, 2012). The context within which such projects operate is important in their success, as are the musical genres focused on and the quality of the music facilitators.

Social Cohesion and Inclusion

Cohesion in school classrooms can be enhanced through extending music making activities leading to better social adjustment and more positive attitudes. These effects seem to be particularly marked for low ability, disaffected pupils (e.g. Spychiger et al., 1993). Group music making has been shown to contribute to feelings of social inclusion (e.g. Rinta et al., 2011). Participating in group music making can also encourage tolerance and the development of social ethics (e.g. Miszka, 2010).

Pro-Social Behaviour and Teamwork

There is evidence of the impact of group music making on pro-social behaviour in children and adults. Collective music making supports co-operation, pro-social behaviour, belongingness, relationships, collaborative learning, social advancement, group identity, solidarity, taking turns, teamwork, and helping others (e.g. Creech et al., 2013). Cross community music education projects have been effective in addressing prejudice amongst young people (e.g. Odena, 2010), although the specific contexts of each setting can set limits on what can be achieved.

Empathy and Emotional Sensitivity

There is relatively little research in this area. Such as there is suggests that participation in active music making may increase the development of empathy and emotional sensitivity in children. For instance, Rabinowitch and colleagues (2013) studied 52 children aged 8–11 years who were randomly assigned to musical activities, games, or acted as a control group. The musical intervention consisted of a range of musical games that were designed to encourage musical interactions and working together creatively. Entrainment games were designed to encourage rhythmic coordination, and imitation games to highlight imitative and gestural encounters, shared intentionality and inter-subjectivity. The children took a battery of tests at the beginning and end of the study that included three measures of emotional empathy. Two out of three of the empathy measures increased in the music group children.


There are many definitions of well-being. Typically, it is considered as relating to the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy. The benefits of active engagement with music in relation to well-being across the lifespan are well documented. Music is increasingly being recognised for its beneficial effects on physical health and wellbeing (see MacDonald et al., 2012). Research with looked after children (or fostered children) has shown that engagement in high quality music-making projects can support the development of resilience when dealing with the challenges that they face. Music-making can contribute to improved negotiation skills, co-operative working and learning to trust peers. It also provides respite from problems and opportunities for having fun (Dillon, 2010). Music making can play a role in supporting the healing of those who have been traumatized. (e.g. Hesser & Heinemann, 2010) and creative musical activities can benefit children who have experienced war promoting the development of self-esteem, trust, and identity (e.g. Osborne, 2009).

Personal Development and Self-Beliefs

Active engagement with music can support the development of musical and other identities and impact on self-beliefs. Depending on the nature of feedback received from others these may be positive or negative. Most of the evidence supports the positive impact of music on self-esteem and self-confidence. Opportunities to perform and receive positive feedback are important in this process (Hallam, 2016). Intervention studies have shown that school-based music classes can prevent a decline in global self-esteem measures (e.g. Rickard et al., 2013).

Music and Health

There is increasing interest in the role of music in enhancing health (MacDonald et al., 2012). The impact of music on psychological wellbeing and subsequently good health is largely, although not exclusively, through the emotions it evokes which can be wide ranging. Music has a particular role in the reduction of stress and anxiety and related to this the reduction of pain and the strengthening of the immune system. Many health benefits are reported from adult participants in music making (e.g. Clift et al., 2008). It is likely that these benefits also apply to young people and children.

Music in hospitals has been used effectively to promote the well-being of young patients enhancing relaxation, providing distraction and helping them to cope with their hospital experiences (see Preti & McFerran, 2014).


This synthesis of research findings has indicated that there can be many benefits of active engagement in making music. Some of these benefits have a direct relationship while others have an indirect effect. Those that the evidence currently suggests are likely to have a clear and direct relationship with musical activity include those relating to:

  • aural perception, which in turn supports the development of language and literacy skills;
  • enhanced verbal memory skills;
  • spatial reasoning which contributes to some elements of mathematics and constitutes part of measured intelligence;
  • self-regulation which is implicated in all forms of learning requiring extensive practice;
  • creativity, particularly where the musical activities are themselves creative; and
  • academic attainment.

Currently, the natures of the specific types of musical activity that are implicated in bringing about particular changes are not clear. There is also the issue of the quality of the music teaching. When the music teaching is poor there may be no benefits and even negative outcomes (Rauscher, 2009).

A range of factors may contribute to the impact of musical training on children’s intellectual, personal, and social development. The age of commencement of training may be an important factor. Some neurological changes may only occur if training starts early, although not all of the research supports this. Length and intensity of musical training may also be important. A further issue relates to individual differences. Several studies have found a subset of participants who have not shown the same degree of improvement in related neuroplasticity in auditory training studies (e.g. Gaab et al., 2006). Genetic factors may be implicated here (Drayna et al., 2001). Some individuals are known to have difficulty in processing pitch (e.g. Peretz et al., 2007) and there are also differences in sensitivity to music (e.g. Wengenroth et al., 2013). Learning capacity and the motivation to engage in training may be genetically modulated (for a review see Frank & Fossella, 2011) thereby leading to differences in the outcomes of standardised training (Merrett et al., 2013). This does not mean that training cannot modify pre-existing anatomical factors and behavioural skills. It is also likely that differences in musical experiences prior to formal training play a role in the ongoing impact.

Some of the benefits relating to engagement with music depend on indirect factors, the social aspects of group music making including those relating to:

  • motivation and re-engagement with education;
  • social cohesion and inclusion;
  • pro-social behaviour and team work;
  • empathy;
  • well-being; and
  • personal development and self-belief.

For these benefits to be realised the quality of the interpersonal interactions between participants and those facilitating the musical activities is crucial. The quality of the music teaching, the extent to which individuals experience success, whether engaging with a particular type of music can be integrated with existing self-perceptions, and whether overall it is a positive experience will all contribute to whether there is a positive impact.

Some common characteristics of musical programmes which are beneficial seem to be emerging (Creech et al., 2013). The musical activities themselves need to be highly interactive and enjoyable (Stupar, 2012) and have resonance for the participants. There need to be opportunities for developing new skills and performing; acquiring cultural capital; developing interpersonal bonds and solidarity in pursuing shared goals; ongoing intensity and frequency of contact; developing mutual respect; and recognition and rewards for excellence. Receiving positive affirmation from others relating to musical activities, particularly performance is crucial in enhancing self-beliefs. If the performances are in high status cultural venues this also seems to enhance the impact (Stupar, 2012).

Implications for Education

The research undertaken to date exploring the wider benefits of making music suggests that:

  • active engagement with making music should start early for the greatest benefits to be realised;
  • engagement needs to be sustained over a long period of time to maximise the benefits;
  • the activities need to include group work;
  • opportunities need to be available for performance;
  • the quality of music teaching needs to be high;
  • the curriculum needs to be broadly based including activities related to pitch and rhythm, singing, instrumental work, composition and improvisation, and the reading of notation;
  • musical activities have to be in a genre to which disaffected and at-risk young people, can relate in order to have a positive impact.


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