Music lessons can help children as young as four show advanced brain development and improve their memory, even when it sounds like a budding musician is banging out little more than noise, a new Canadian study suggests.

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton used magnetoencephalography(MEG) brain-scanning technology to compare the developmental changes in 12 children aged four to six over the course of a year.

The study, to be published in the October edition of Oxford University's neurology journal Brain, found that those who took music lessons showed more changes in brain responses.

Even when parents hear only what sounds like random notes or nonsense, it's likely their children are developing their brains in ways that could enhance their overall thinking, said professor Laurel Trainor, who led the study with Takako Fujioka, a scientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.

"There are probably really fundamental things going on in the brain as those kids are learning over that first year, so even though they appear on the surface to maybe only play a few pieces, very simple pieces, it's probably setting up networks in their brain," Trainor said.

Music training could lead to improvements in literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ, she added.

The study found particular changes in the attentional systems of children who took music lessons, which affected their ability to pay attention to important things around them.

"A child with a superior attentional system will be able to apply that in different domains, so they'll be able to focus in on what's important in a verbal learning task, they'll be able to concentrate when figuring out a mathematical problem," Trainor said.

"So you can imagine how a superior attentional system would have wide-ranging consequences across many domains."

Trainor said the study represents the first time researchers have identified the benefits of music lessons for preschool children.

Value of music education

Previous studies compared the impact of music classes and drama classes in older children and found kids who learned an instrument had better improvements in IQ scores.

"I think our study and other studies show that music has benefits… for cognitive processing and cognitive development," she said.

"We would hope that when decisions have to be made, music would be considered a core part of the preschool and school curriculum."

Many studies have shown the value of music education and many parents want it for their children, said Ingrid Whyte, executive director of the Coalition for Music Education in Canada.

"There's this tremendous emphasis on math and English and science, and those are wonderful and important things, but here's a study proving, yet again, that music education does help develop the brain," Whyte said.

"There's also a whole range of other skills that are being developed in terms of social skills and creativity, and a sense of belonging and community and collaboration with one another."