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Executive function: 10 games for music lessons

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

"Learning music involves all the aspects that account for an effective training of executive functions."
Diamond, A. and Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science (New York NY). 333(6045), 959-964.

What is executive function?

Executive function describes a set of mental skills that we use every day. They are the skills that enable us to plan ahead and prioritise, focus and pay attention, follow instructions, solve problems, regulate our emotions and control impulses.

Executive function uses three types of brain functions:

  1. Working memory: the ability to retain memories over a short period of time.

  2. Mental flexibility: the ability to maintain or change focus in response to different demands or different situations.

  3. Self control: the ability to prioritise and resist impulsive actions or responses.

We use these skills to help us successfully manage daily life. When children are given opportunities to develop executive function, they are developing skills that will have a positive effect on their entire lives. Executive function skills are crucial for learning and for building positive relationships with those around them.

Executive function skills help us with:

  • Paying attention

  • Organisation

  • Planning and prioritising

  • Staying on task

  • Understanding different points of view

  • Regulating emotions

  • Self monitoring

  • Problem solving

  • Dealing with new situations and information

Executive function develops quickly in children and continues to develop during the teenage years, and even into the 20's.

Some children may display signs of difficulties with executive function, including:

  • Losing focus and becoming easily distracted

  • Having difficulty starting and finishing tasks

  • Forgetting what they've just heard or read

  • Having trouble switching from one task to the next

  • Difficulties when a routine is disrupted

  • Having trouble managing time

  • Getting overly emotional

"Active music making is a particularly crucial factor for executive functions improvement."
Frischen, U. et al. (2021). Music lessons enhance executive functions in 6- to 7-year-old children. Learning and instructions, 74, 101442.

Some examples of how music making helps to develop executive functions include [2]:

  1. Inhibition – playing and stopping when the music tells you to, also changing key signatures or rhythms.

  2. Selective attention – tuning and listening in an ensemble.

  3. Auditory and visual working memory, short-term memory - reading and playing music, copying (echoing) the teacher's demonstration.

  4. Long-term memory - learning and playing pieces from memory.

  5. Cognitive flexibility - following instructions in the music and from the teacher/conductor.

There are lots of ways to help children develop their executive function skills at home and in the classroom, but what about in the music lesson? Many games and activities can be successfully adapted for music lessons and music practice at home.

Here are eight ideas and a pdf to download:

Executive function
Download PDF • 48KB

1. Jenga

(Skills: self control, flexibility, planning)

Use a marker or sticker to write lesson elements on the Jenga blocks. Students build the Jenga tower in the usual way, but each time they pull out a block they have to complete the task written on it. Some task examples are:

  • Current song

  • Revision song

  • Scale

  • Long notes

  • Quiet listening

  • Jumping and wiggling to music

  • Sight reading

2. Distraction

(Skills: working memory, attention)

The student has to play a song or a scale while the teacher or parent tries to distract them. I've done this often in group classes where I've given the parents some small percussion instruments (eg maracas, finger cymbals, tambourine), and had them play randomly while the students are playing their song. The aim for the students is to not get distracted by the parents' "bad" behaviour, but to block it out and keep going no matter what happens! This is always great fun and can easily be replicated in a one on one lesson or at home.

3. Pass it on

(Skills: attention, working memory)

This can be done in a one on one lesson or in a group class. In a group class all players should stand or sit in a circle. Decide on a scale or a song, the first player plays the first note and each successive player plays the next note, passing back and forwards between teacher and student or around the circle.

Another way to use this game is to create a group composition. Each person has to improvise a short phrase, passing seamlessly around the circle, or back and forth between teacher and student.

4. Time's up!

(Skills: time management, task initiation)

Set a timer and have the student complete as many pre arranged tasks as possible within that time. Young students usually love this and want to revisit this again and again to beat their score! Some examples are:

  • Play as many one octave scales as you can in one minute.

  • Play as many songs as you can in one minute.

  • Set up a staff with notes that the student has learned and see how many notes the student can say or play, or say and play, in 20 or 30 seconds.

  • Play as many two octave scales as you can in two minutes.

5. Freeze!

(Skills: self control, attention)

This is the opposite of the party game where you dance around while the music plays and freeze when the music stops. Have the student/s jump up and down, and when you start the recording of the song they are learning they have to freeze! For young children this works best with short songs such as Mary had a little lamb, or short passages from songs. It's a good way to get them actively listening to the songs they are learning, and can easily be done at home.

6. Plan the lesson - with visual aids

(Skills: planning organisation)

Create some cards that represent the elements of the lesson or home practice session. Have the child organise the cards into what comes first, next, next etc, and lay them all out on a board or table. You can even stick the cards to magnets and have the student arrange them on a magnetic board! As they complete each task they can remove that card and place it back in the box in which the cards are stored. You can have a "treat" card and the rule is that the "treat" card goes at the very end. A treat doesn't have to be lollies, it could be dancing to their favourite song, or playing a game they love.

7. Estimate

(Skills: planning, time management)

Before starting a task, for example playing a song or a scale, have the student estimate how long they think it will take to complete. Time the task and compare the estimate to the actual time taken. Keep a record of guesses and actual times taken, and use these to help with subsequent estimates. Discuss how this may help with planning what to play, or the order in which to play things, in lessons and home practice. This works best for school age children.

8. Find the doggy

(Skills: attention, working memory, task initiation)

This is a variation on hot/cold and is a huge hit with my children and students. We have a small dog shaped toy which is why it's called "Find the doggy", however you can use any small toy! One person - the seeker, for want of a better word - leaves the room and the remaining person (the hider!) has to hide the toy. When the seeker re-enters the room to start looking for the toy, the hider plays their instrument to help the seeker find it, by playing loudly when they get nearer and quietly when they get further away from it! Choose a well known song that can be played from memory. This game works with both teacher and student having turns at being the seeker and the hider.

9. Memory (pre-school)

(Skills: attention, working memory, task initiation)

This is a classic matching cards game. Using common music symbols such as treble clefs, crotchets/quarter notes, semibreve/whole notes, make three matching pairs of cards (six cards in total). Place the cards all face down. The student turns over two cards at a time to try and find a matching pair. They have to remember where cards are placed in order to successfully match up the cards.

10. Memory (school age)

(Skills: attention, working memory, task initiation)

For older students, instead of having cards with matching symbols, make the matching pairs more complex. For example, a minim/half note symbol matches with a number 2 (2 beats), or a note G written on the staff matches with a letter "G". Students not only have to remember where cards are placed in order to find each match, but they also have to use their knowledge of music theory to make a correct match.

In conclusion...

Taking the time to develop executive function skills is giving a gift to a student that will stay with them for life, and is well worth the time and effort.



[1] Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science (New York, N.Y.), 333(6045), 959–964.

[2] Frischen, U., Schwarzer, G., & Degé, F. (2021). Music lessons enhance executive functions in 6-to 7-year-old children. Learning and Instruction, 74, 101442.

[3] Tomporowski, P. D., & Pesce, C. (2019). Exercise, sports, and performance arts benefit cognition via a common process. Psychological bulletin, 145(9), 929.

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