The Effects of Musical Training on Child Development

In today’s post we want to give you an insight into the study The Effects of Musical Training on Child Development: A randomized trial of El Sistema in Venezuela by Alemán et al., which has been published in the Journal Prevention Science in 2017.

The study covers a unique field in the research on musical education due to its focus on child development in a developing country with a high rate of violence exposure and on a large-scale musical training provided by the government. Another aspect is that there exists not so much empirical research – especially larger sample experiments – on musical training and child outcomes overall and in detail on El Sistema Venezuela.

We hypothesized that short-term participation in orchestras or choruses may foster
positive change in four child functioning domains: self-regulatory skills, behavior, prosocial skills and connections, and cognitive skills
.” (Alemán et al., 2017, p. 866).

A randomized control trial took place in 16 different Núcleos (music centers) of El Sistema across several states of Venezuela between May 2012 and NovemberIn total 2914 children between 6 and 14 years were randomized allocated to two groups; Children in the treatment group got an early admission, so they can participate one semester longer in the musical training than children in the control group. The musical training itself took place according to the curriculum of El Sistema, which generally includes participation in both orchestral and choral programs in the first year.

The authors identified 26 primary outcome variables within the four child functioning domains: self-regulatory skills, behavior, prosocial skills and connections, and cognitive skills (Alemán et al., 2017, p. 868).

The analysis was performed using a regression analysis controlling for a broad set of economic, cultural and social indicators focusing on the role of e.g. age, gender, education of guardians or violence exposure.

However, we do not want to bother you with too much details on the methodological background of the outcome measures or on the regression model. If you are interested, please have a look at page 875 for the former resp. page 886 for the latter in Alemán et al. (2017).

Selected Key Findings (Alemán et al., 2017, p. 872)

  • Children who got offered an early admission reported a higher level of increased Self-control and decreased behavioral Difficulties compared to those in the control group.
  • These two impacts were stronger for children with less-educated mothers.
  • A stronger improved Self-control and decline in Difficulties and Aggressive Propensity were observed for boys than for girls, particularly when those boys have been previously exposed to violence.
  • The full-sample effect on Self-control is observed among younger children (6 to 9) but not older children (10 to 14).
  • No significant full-sample effects for Cognitive or Pro-social skills were observed.
  • Unexpectedly negative effects were observed e.g. on Family involvement and Intrapersonal strengths in the case of educated mothers or on Empathy in the case of girls exposed to violence

Alemán et al. are aware of some limitations like possible biased self- and guardian- reported outcomes, lack of additional reporters (e.g. music directors, peers or schoolteachers) or the relatively small number of Núcleos used (2017, p. 874). Another aspect is that the generalizability of the study is limited due to the unique structure of El Sistema Venezuela and support of the government. Finally, we want to mention that the focus was set on short-term participation, so further research is still necessary to get an insight into longitudinal effects.

Significance of the Findings:
This study demonstrates that music programs can have a big impact on the behavior of children, particularly those who are most disadvantaged e.g. in terms of social background or violence exposure.

Connection to SDGs
In this last section we want to give you three examples we elaborated on how the study by Alemán et al (2017) can be connected to the SDGs. Let’s recall the manner of e.g. SDG target 1.5 on No Poverty: “…, build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situation …” (UN, 2017, p.17). As we can observe in the results of the study, a musical training like El Sistema strengthens e.g. the level of Self-control and decreases behavioral Difficulties of children. Therefore, we can see that such programs can help on building resilience in different ways.

Another connection is given by considering the positive effect of El Sistema Venezuela on children’s Behaviors and its relevance for SDG target 3.4 regarding promoting mental-health and well-being.

Lastly, we want to mention SDG target 11.7, because it is an easy choice since El Sistema Venezuela fulfills the definition in most aspects since it provides “universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, … public spaces, in particular for women and children and, … persons with disabilities” (UN, 2015, p. 24).

Of course, there are more connection to the SDGs, but our goal of this post was to give you an insight into the study as well point out some example how musical training – in particular El Sistema Venezuela – is connected to the SDGs.

So, what do you think of this study? Do you have any remarks?
In any regard, please let us know via the contact formular.

Alemán, X., Duryea, S., Guerra, N.G. et al. Prev Sci (2017) 18: 865.
United Nations General Assembly (UN, 2015). Transforming our world: The
2030agenda for sustainable development, available at,
retrieved 24.04.19.