Many parents might consider why they should enroll their children in some sort of music lessons and/or program. Some may have heard of the Mozart Effect, and how it has been debunked based on its claims. While this study’s conclusions were actually blown out of proportion by news media and politicians, there are other more recent studies that show there are many other benefits of children studying and participating in music. Music educators know firsthand these benefits, as well as that it is never too early to surround kids with musical experiences.
When it comes to asking someone about what the benefits are for children who take music lessons, you will more than likely get a mix of answers. Recent research indicates that children’s brains might go through changes upon music education. There are multiple intelligences (temporal-spatial, musical, interpersonal, logical, etc.), which many of these become enhanced with music lessons and help with overall growth and development.
There is an especially strong link of the development and growth of processing language and improved reading skills. Nina Kraus, Ph.D., and her team have carried out research that correlates how well a child is able to distinguish the components of sound, such as rhythm, timbre (quality of sound) and pitch, with how well a child can read. Furthermore, sound processing is proven to be a sure indicator of how well the brain is functioning, as autistic children have difficulties with sound processing. Additional research by her team has also shown that musicians can actually hear more acutely in rowdy and noisy environments that non-musicians. And these listening abilities and skills are directly linked to learning development through increased reading aptitude, listening skills, attentiveness, concentration, and memory. Hence, music lessons are to the brain (auditory fitness) as exercise is to the body (physical fitness).
AlexndraParbery-Clark, a doctoral candidate working in the same lab as Dr. Kraus, was a former concert pianist and music teacher who is now researching how the brain is transformed from musical training. What she is discovering is that musically trained students’ brains are responding more intensely and even differently to electrical detection of sounds. She and other researchers have now come to the point where they can distinguish which participants are musically trained based on the electrical mapping of their brains.
Yet some other studies prove even more benefits when a child engages in some sort of music education, and the benefits also extend to later in life. One study tested a group of senior citizens who kept up with their instruments, and found that they had also retained their central auditory processing skills, which helped them overcome the “cocktail party” problem. The study by Dr. Claude Alain from the Rotman Research Institute found that those participants who had musical training did significantly better in recognizing speech patterns amidst noise than those who did not have musical training.
In addition to increasing auditory fitness, behavioral traits might also be improved. A longitudinal study by James Hudziak involving 232 children from 6-18 years old, focused on the correlation of cortical thickness in the brain with music education. Data was gathered via MRI scans throughout 3 tests every 2 years. Data was also gathered from IQ testing and information concerning the children’s music training. It is pertinent to know that Hudziak and his researchers learned before this study that depression, anxiety, attention deficiencies, and aggressive behavior are linked with cortical thickness. They found in this 2014 study that the more a child took instrumental music lessons, in accordance with their age, the more their anxiety management, attention skills, and emotional control increased. This overall increase in the children’s development was tied to increased brain thickness in parts which focused on executive functioning (working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving, attention control, organizational skills). These parts of the brain include the motor, premotor, supplementary motor, prefrontal, and parietal cortices. Researchers went further to suggest music training as an effective treatment for ADHD and other cognitive disorders. Thus, not only were cognitive aspects enhanced, but also behavioral attributes as well.
Dr. John Iversen from the University of California, San Diego, via the SIMPHONY Study and in collaboration with the San Diego Youth Symphony Opus Program, is conducting a longitudinal 5-year study that is following a group of children who are either taking music lessons or not, and is finding that the ones who are musically engaged have better beat synchronization detection. This measure was taken from how well the children recognized whether or not a metronome beeping was “on beat” with a particular song. They also did better in language perception tests. These trends seem to be correlated with the size of the motor planning cortex—the bigger the cortex, the better the children were able to accurately determine if the beeping was on beat.
Another U.C. endeavor found more musically intra-related correlations. At the University of California, San Francisco, researchers led by Dr. Jane Gitschier discovered that nearly 100 percent of participants who had perfect or absolute pitch also had taken music lessons during their childhood. While the core of the study was to prove that absolute pitch was determined by genetics, it also proved that these musical savants needed to have musical training early in their development to help bring out their natural talents.
Parents now may wonder when exactly is a great age for children to begin music lessons. Mario Ajera, PhD discusses briefly in the beginning of his YouTube video how he started his own son at the early age of 3. He basically uses rote technique (playing short patterns for the student and having them copy what the teacher played) and ear-training, deriving from techniques used in the Suzuki method. He then naturally introduces music notation by using Hal Leonard’s primer piano book, which he goes into detail about how the method book comfortably acquaints students with notation. This very much parallels how any young child would learn a language—by first learning to speak, before they learn to write.
On the other hand, Frank Baxter gives a caveat to parents that there is no “set age” to start kids in music lessons, and that it all depends on their maturity, attention span, and self-discipline. Even though he claims the most probable age to start will be from 6-9 due to the child already being in a scholastic environment, he does also concede that much younger children can be taught by a parent who has a musical background, or they can at least be exposed to music in general, echoing what Dr. Ajera mentioned from the previous video.
In conclusion, there are many studies that have recently been conducted that demonstrate that through music, a student’s brain is changed in a positive way, auditory cognitive skills are enhanced, attentiveness, emotional stability, and language/reading skills, can be improved, and music-related skills such as recognizing pitch and beat accuracy are developed.