Music Education and Brain Development

Over the past two decades, music training has been associated with better than average language and mathematical skills and higher IQ, while differences between musicians and nonmusicians have been found in brain areas related to hearing and movement, among others. What is the mechanism behind such differences? One important goal of our program is to understand the effects of music training on brain development, investigated in terms of psychological (emotional, cognitive, social) and actual neural functions.

The only way to correctly assess the effects of music training on child development is to study children before they start any music training and to follow them systematically thereafter, to establish how their brain and behavior change in relation to their training. Beginning in 2012, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their youth orchestra program (YOLA) and Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), we have been investigating the effects of group-based music training in 80 children between the ages of six and seven. We have continued to follow them, to document the effects of such training on their development, using neural, emotional, cognitive, and social development measures.

The study is currently in its fourth year and has so far provided support for the positive impact of music training on development of auditory processes as evidenced by greater ability for pitch perception and production and enhanced maturation of the auditory pathway as shown by more developed sensory auditory evoked potentials. In addition, the findings have provided support for a positive association between music training and improvements in cognitive skills including working memory and inhibitory function and as evidence by greater brain activation in brain’s prefrontal circuitry during tasks engaging executive function skills.

We hope that the findings from this study will not only lead to a better understanding of the benefits of musical training in general but provide further insights into the social and psychological merits of childhood music education.

The BCI Brain and Music Program is supported not only by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, but by a generous grant from GRoW@Annenberg.


Brain, Music and Feelings

Related to the relationship between music and the brain, we rae also interested in understanding the connection between music and emotions and how music of varied kind has the power to elicit a wide range of emotions in listeners and bring individuals together. In a series of ongoing experiments, we have examined the mechanisms by which the brain processes emotions induced by music while attempting to shed light on age-old questions regarding music’s importance in our everyday lives, such as why we listen to sad music, how intensely pleasurable responses emerge from music-listening, and how music can facilitate prosocial behavior. By further understating the neural underpinning of emotion and pleasure processing during music listening, we hope to establish the ways in which music can be used as an effective complementary tool for emotion regulation.

For more information about the Music and the Brain study, please email


Habibi, A., Cahn, BR., Damasio, A., Damasio, H. (2016). Neural Correlates of Accelerated Auditory Processing in Children Engaged in Music Training. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 21, 1-14

Ilari, B. S., Keller, P., Damasio, H., & Habibi, A. (2016). The Development of Musical Skills of Underprivileged Children over the Course of 1 Year: A Study in the Context of an El Sistema-Inspired Program. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.

Habibi, A., Sarkissian, A. D., Gomez, M., & Ilari, B. (2015). Developmental Brain Research With Participants From Underprivileged Communities: Strategies for Recruitment, Participation, and Retention. Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(3), 179-186.

Sachs, M., Damasio, A., & Habibi, A. (2015). The Pleasures of Sad Music. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Dialogues in music therapy and music neuroscience, 9, 404.

Ilari, B., & Habibi, A. (2015). Favorite songs, melodic elements, and a familiar tune: Performance of children from Brazil and the United States on components of the ATBSS. Musicae Scientiae, 19(3), 265-281.

Habibi, A., Ilari, B., Crimi, K.,  Metke, M., Kaplan, J.T., Joshi, A., Leahy, R., Shattuck, D.,  Choi, S., Ficek, B., Haldar, J., Damasio, A.D., and Damasio, H. (2014). An Equal Start: Absence of Group Differences in Cognitive, Social and Neural Measures Prior to Music or Sports Training in Children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8 (690), 1-11.

Habibi, A., & Damasio, A. (2014). Music, feelings, and the human brain. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 24(1), 92.




Assal Habibi, PhD

Beatriz Ilari, PhD

Jonas Kaplan, PhD

Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD

Hanna Damasio, MD

Matthew Sachs

Priscilla Perez

Katrina Heine

Alison Wood

Sarah Hennessy