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How Neuroscience Research Informs The Royal Conservatory’s Unique Approach to Early Childhood Music

How Neuroscience Research Informs The Royal Conservatory’s Unique Approach to Early Childhood Music Education

Published on September 28, 2022

Focusing on core cognitive skills sets children up for success — musically and academically

Child in SmartStart class

By Dr. Sean Hutchins

Since its inception in 2014, the Royal Conservatory’s Neuroscience Research Centre has focused on three major pillars: Generating original research on music and the mind; communicating this research to the broader community; and applying this research to our own music education systems.

In particular, the Smart Start™ early childhood music education program aims to develop children’s musical abilities and train core cognitive skills. Because of this unique cognitive focus, the RCM Research Centre has been explicitly involved with both designing the activities – to ensure that each activity explicitly targets one or more cognitive skills – as well as testing the outcomes of children in the program.

Prior cognitive science research offers valuable insight for designing early childhood music education programs, and Smart Start™ targets four major cognitive skills:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Perception
  • Cognitive Flexibility

These core skills are relevant to both academics and daily life, and an integral part of many musical abilities. Keeping a steady beat, for example, requires perception and attention. Memorizing a song or improvising a new melody also requires these skills, and these core abilities can then transfer to other aspects of life. This is thought to be a major reason why musicians regularly show stronger cognitive abilities than non-musicians.

Another important cornerstone for our program is early, age-specific training. Extensive and varied research has shown that musical training is most beneficial when it starts early. As anyone who’s tried to learn a new language will realize, a child’s brain is capable of learning in ways that adults simply cannot keep up with. Research on both linguistic and musical development has shown that age is important, and that certain skills are best learned at certain ages. That is why our Smart Start™ classes start from birth, and why they are all age-specific – to allow us to target a child’s musical and cognitive abilities at their own stage of development. This also means there is a distinct curriculum for each age group (ages 0 through 6, inclusive) — children are not simply repeating the same material year over year, but are building on prior learning while developing new skills.

In addition to developing this curriculum, we have also tested it extensively in our Neuroscience Research Centre, to check our own work. So far, the results have been very promising. Our studies have shown benefits to such skills as vocabulary size and pre-reading skills associated with substantial improvements in musical abilities. Children in Smart Start™ show improvements above and beyond those expected from normal development.

These findings have also informed the curriculum itself. For example, our findings that musical skills show the most transfer to language abilities in early childhood has led us to focus more on using the rhythmic qualities of speech in our activities and adding more material from non-native languages into the curriculum.

The Smart Start™ program is just one of the ways the RCM Research Centre is realizing its mission to develop human potential — by translating scientific knowledge into new programs, targeted to make the most impact possible, and backed by a solid base of research.

Explore Smart Start™ programs Learn More about The Marilyn Thomson Early Childhood Education Centre