Executive function comprises a person's ability to stay on task and pay attention, as well as their working memory and delay gratification. As any teacher might already know, this makes executive function essential to success in school, and indeed, in life. According to a recent article in Scientific American's Special Collector's Mind issue, scientists at Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory have found that music training improves students' listening skills and enhances their working memory. Of course, for music teachers, memorization and listening are vital skills that we encourage our students to exercise regularly. What's more, playing an instrument requires an enormous amount of attention. In the average orchestra rehearsal, for example, a young musician must focus on playing their instrument, reading the music, following the conductor, and staying together with their section, all while constantly monitoring their tone, intonation, and rhythm. It's quite a mental workout.
There are still plenty of questions, however. For example, do different instruments or types of music lessons change the effects of music on the brain? How long and how much does a student need to practice before they see the effects, and are the changes permanent? It will take much more research before we can know the answers to these and many other questions. However, there have been many tantalizing clues. In his book Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner developed a theory of multiple intelligences, including musical, mathematical, linguistic, spatial, and others. As part of his research, Gardner first tested children's strengths in his eight different intelligences, then had them take a traditional IQ test. Though Gardner expected that a high traditional IQ would correspond to linguistic or spatial ability, in turned out that musical intelligence most strongly predicted which children had the highest IQ. Yet that still leaves the question--does musical training increased brain power, or is it that highly intelligent people are attracted to playing music?
I also wish that more research would study the benefits of music lessons for adults. There's quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that music can help older students recover from strokes or stave off dementia. I've even heard of adult students who find playing an instrument vital for maintaining their dexterity, not to mention the immense social benefits that come from playing in community bands or orchestras. While the evidence is incomplete, I think musical training does benefit the brain, which is one more reason why school and community music programs are more vital than ever.