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PhD candidate Kierla Ireland investigates how children learn music skills

The Concordian researches the impact of early training on kids’ development
November 23, 2018
Kierla Ireland: “It is important that you really enjoy being with children before conducting research with them!”
Kierla Ireland: “It is important that you really enjoy being with children before conducting research with them!”

Many parents wonder at what age they should enrol their children in music lessons. Kierla Ireland is looking for the answer.

The fifth-year PhD candidate in Concordia’s Department of Psychology researches how music training can impact a child’s musical abilities during his or her early years. She is also a member of the Penhune Lab for Motor Learning and Neural Plasticity, led by Concordia psychology professor Virginia Penhune.

To gather her research findings, Ireland uses two computer-based tasks to assess a child’s understanding of pitch and melody, as well as their rhythmic skills. To date, she has tested more than 200 children enrolled in music and science summer camps.

Ireland is also the lead author of a paper recently published in Frontiers in Psychology. The study was co-authored by Penhune, who is her her supervisor, and two other graduate students.

It’s never too early to engage with music

How does this specific image relate to your research at Concordia?

Kierla Ireland: Although musical skills develop on their own, getting music lessons at a young age might actually boost their development. We know that early musical training can “prime the system” for faster learning and musical skill acquisition later in life, and the focus of my research is to understand whether we can observe this same effect during childhood. This image is a reminder that it’s never too early to engage with music.

What is the hoped-for result of your project? And what impact could you see it having on people’s lives?

KI: My hope is that our work will be used by other researchers interested in assessing children’s musical abilities. This would have a direct impact on the important but sometimes overlooked issue of replication in psychological science. As other research groups use our tasks to publish data, we can better assess how consistent the results are from sample to sample and evaluate the reliability of the tasks.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

KI: Collecting data in a summer camp is an enormous logistical challenge, and working with children can be physically and emotionally exhausting. At the same time, it can be highly rewarding and a source of unexpected and often hilarious experiences.

For instance, one child participant asked if I would provide a scientific review for their design of a “human-dragon hybrid.” It is important that you really enjoy being with children before conducting research with them!

What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?

KI: Beyond the contribution to basic science, I see our research being applied in music education. Teachers could use our tasks to measure students’ improvement over time. They can also apply the age-equivalent scores we provide to assess each student’s standing relative to child musicians of the same age.

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject and get involved in the field?

KI: I grew up surrounded by musicians and have been a lifelong music lover. As an amateur percussionist for the past 10 years, I have become fascinated by the many different ways in which “musical ability” is expressed in drumming. For some, it is the ability to learn complex rhythms quickly. For others, it is the capacity to improvise the most beautiful, powerful and groovy solos.

I love studying musicians, so it was an easy choice for me to join Virginia Penhune’s lab and to work with children just starting their musical training.

How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research? What advice would you give them?

KI: Montreal is an international hot spot for the field of music cognition. People who are interested in this topic should sign up for newsletters and article alerts from multidisciplinary research groups such as the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS) and the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music (CRBLM).

From there, start contacting professors about opportunities for volunteering in their labs. The most successful candidates for lab positions are those who have a personal interest in the research area and who can fulfill a variety of roles in different research projects.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

KI: I have grown immensely as a scientist thanks in large part to my supervisor, as well as other faculty members who have provided guidance along the way. One of the most rewarding experiences during my time at Concordia was to supervise a group of undergraduate students. We have accomplished a lot as the “Penhune Kids Power Team” and will continue to collaborate long after my degree is completed.

Are there any partners, agencies or other funding/support attached to your research?

KI: My research has been funded by the Fonds de Recherche du Québec - Société et la culture (FRQ-SC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science.

Learn more about Concordia’s
Department of Psychology.



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