Schools help students learn specific skills and facts: long division, and the preamble to the US Constitution, and glorious mysteries of the sonnet.
Wouldn’t it be great if schools could improve general cognitive capabilities?
For instance, it would be AWESOME if we could artificially increase working memory capacity. (Alas, we can’t. Really.)
It would be great if we could teach general critical thinking skills. (Alas: although we can teach those skills in discrete disciplinary topics, we probably can’t teach critical thinking generally.)
I would be super helpful if we could improve our students’ ability to pay attention…wait a minute: maybe we can.
We know that musicians must concentrate intensely to accomplish their marvelous work. To focus on the sheet music, ignore myriad distractions, accomplish nimble finger skills—all these require impressive degrees of attention.
Does all that attending help musicians both play music better and pay attention better? In other words: can they use those attention skills in other parts of their life?
To answer that question, we have to start by defining the concept of “attention.”
Surprisingly, psychologists and neuroscientists don’t see attention as one unified thing. Instead, the see it as a behavior that takes place when three other things are happening.
First, they measure alertness. That’s a basic biological readiness: are the students awake enough? Or, so wildly overstimulated that they can’t focus? Those questions examine alertness. (Notice: they don’t directly examine attention—alertness is one small part of that bigger picture.)
Second, they measure orienting. When we ask about orienting, we consider the stimuli that the student is consciously perceiving.
So, for instance, at this moment I’m orienting to the letters on the screen as I type, to the mug of tea to my right, and to my cat Pippin who keeps nudging my arm. I’m not orienting to—say—the comfy chair in the corner, or the color of paint on the ceiling, or the gentle thump of the laundry machine downstairs.
I know all that stuff is there, but I’m not consciously processing it. (Well, I suppose, now that I’m writing about it, I must be processing it. But, I wasn’t orienting to it until I tried to identify stimuli that I wasn’t orienting to…)
Finally, to define the third part of attention, we consider executive attention. That segment takes much more time to describe and define, and overlaps a lot with working memory. It also includes our ability to ignore unimportant stimuli. We deliberately decide to focus on this topic here, not that one there.
So, when we ask the question “does music training improve attention,” we’re really asking three questions:
“Does music training improve alertness?”
“Does music training improve orienting?”
“Does music training improve executive attention?”
With these three questions in mind, we know what to do next.
To test attention, researchers often use the Attention Network Test (ANT) to measure all three sub-segments of our attentional processes.
In this study, scholars in Chile worked with about 40 adults. Half were “professional pianists,” with an average of more than 12 years of music training. The other half had never taken music lessons, and couldn’t read sheet music.
Did the musicians outperform the non-musicians on the ANT?
No, no, and yes.
That is: musicians and non-musicians did equally well at the first two parts of attention: alertness and orienting.
But, musicians scored higher on the executive attention part of the test than the non-musicians did.
Basically, they ignored irrelevant stimuli better than their age-matched peers.
What Does This Research Mean in the Classroom?
You can probably anticipate all the reasons we shouldn’t over-react to this study.
It’s quite small: fewer than 40 people participated.
It doesn’t necessarily show cause and effect. It’s entirely possible that people who start with better executive attention are more likely to become professional musicians than people with lower executive attention.
The professional musicians had YEARS of musical experience: more than twelve, on average. So: even if music training does improve executive attention, it’s not a quick fix.
At the same time, this study does suggest something important: at least in this one case, we might be able to train a general cognitive capability.
That is: we can’t speed up our students’ working memory development. We can’t train a general critical thinking skill. We can’t improve processing speed.
But, maybe, we can find ways to strengthen executive attention.
Given how important attention is in the classroom, that’s potentially great news indeed.