Music lessons have many benefits. Learning an instrument can be rewarding and challenging. Most kids at some stage will try out an instrument, even if just the humble recorder. Why would you want your child to play an instrument? I have collected some useful information here to help you decide.
What is so peculiar about Music
Music / Music Lessons and the brain
Music is different from any other activity in that it makes no propositions, it has no imagery or concepts like language does. It is communal in nature, we play sing and dance together and it connects people without the need for words.
Music and how we feel and understand it is neurologically closely linked to the motor cortex. This is why we feel like moving and tapping our feet when we hear or play music. Nietzsche said that we “listen to music with our muscles” because of this direct physical feeling we get from the melodic contours.
Music is used in therapy for several neurological disorders like Parkinson and Tourettes. Music has remarkable emotive power and can bring back memories of the past or elicit feelings, even feelings not of a past even but general feelings of romance, sadness, love, even feelings never felt before, like being brought into something new, of someone else’s emotive landscape. We may very well be biologically and evolutionarily shaped to like music.
Developmental benefit of musical training
Forget the Mozart effect
Listening to music is a pleasure most people indulge in but why should you play yourself. The Mozart effect has been debunked after a lot of excitement in the 90’s and that looked at the effect of listening to classical music before taking a test anyway.
Other research is now looking at how the brain changes when someone learns an instrument. In short, it strengthens the connection between the two halves of your brain, the corpus callosum between the hemispheres, that is, the analytical and the creative faculties become more connected. Several studies have shown that musical training, even learning nursery rhymes and early childhood lessons, cause cortical thickening.
The MRI scans have shown a correlation between the degree of cortical thickening and the amount and duration of a child’s exposure to musical training. The researchers at the University of Vermont College compare it to how you train your muscles: the more you use weights or do push-ups, the stronger the muscle becomes and your brain is no different.
The cortex, the outer layer of the brain, changes and the musical training accelerates cortical organisation in areas that control attention skills, anxiety management, and emotional control. The surprising factor here is that, while you probably expected neural changes because you are learning a new skill, the effect is not just that you can sing a new song, play a new scale on the piano or play a new song on your violin – it aids emotional and behavioural maturation as well.
This study looked at the effect of musical training on healthy participants. The study leader and professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College, Dr. Hudziak, speculates that when the effect on healthy participants is measurable, the effect on kids with eg. ADHD could be significant.
Neurological studies aside, looking at what personal qualities are nurtured when taking music lessons, even the most cursory review of what a music student does brings up several interesting observations:
Personal organisation and time management
Routine and repetition is key to any musical training. The music student thus learns to be responsible and accountable and also to sustain motivation and to be efficient.
Perseverance and patience
Repeat, repeat, repeat, even when it sounds less than perfect in any training session and then keep those training sessions going through challenging new techniques and learning to read those black dots and squiggles set out on lines like a new language. Every lesson is about feedback and no matter how softly couched or solidly constructive, it can be hard to take and requires you to scrape your ego off the floor and get on with it. Improvement really is a state of mind, an attitude to self and others. This can contribute to a sense of achievement, positive attitude and a greater sense of identity.
Every instrument has its own logic and you have to learn how to decode it. There are the black and white keys on a piano, levers on a flute, the particular way to hold a violin and bow and where to put your fingers and so on. An analytical understanding of the notes is also necessary to move beyond nursery rhymes and melodies you can do from memory. Attention to detail and planning and strategic skills are strengthened.
Memory and especially working memory
All that repetition and perseverance has to result in retaining the skill to use the instrument and ability to read the notes and then you have to add the need to retain recent pieces of musical technique and notes to play the music, as sight reading is good but will not get you very far.
All these are transferable skills and maybe more importantly, personal qualities that will benefit a child or indeed a person of any age.
No one ever succeeded at learning to play an instrument because they wanted to strengthen the corpus callosum. Music has to be and always was about enjoyment.
It is interesting and informative about the role of musical practice in someone’s life, to observe how a lot of people from all sorts of professions other than music also spent their free time playing an instrument. Einstein played both the violin and the piano quite well, famously declaring that if “I were not a physicist, I would have been a musician”. Neil Armstrong played the baritone horn. Alexander Graham Bell played the piano. Charles Dickens played the accordion. Thomas Edison played the piano. These are all people who need no further introduction because of their standing in their respective fields.
We are left guessing why they spent so much time and energy pursuing something seemingly not related to the vocation for which they became famous. Obviously, it gave them personal enjoyment and a distraction from the everyday. Pursuing music is not necessarily about nurturing the next Maxim Vengerov or Vladimir Ashkenazy, it is about creating enjoyment and maybe a sense of achievement.
It is not only famous overachievers who take the time to learn an instrument. Many hospitals have enough staff playing an instrument to put together hospital orchestras and there are many community orchestras around Australia, check out musicinaustralia.org.au
The chicken-egg question
The unanswerable question here is whether music makes you smarter or whether smart people are more likely to engage in, stick to and excel in musical training. The clinical findings can only tell you that there was a marked cortical change in those children who did engage in and stick with the musical training for a period of time, not whether the sample of kids they were left with at the end of a study was smarter to start with.
What can be said with certainty, is that when children engage in something they find exciting and when they get to master new challenges, those things have positive benefits wholly by themselves. The parenting part involved here is to make sure you support your child’s natural curiosity and let them engage themselves in ways they find rewarding. Musical training is an activity that demands a lot of effort but also offers rewards of excitement and achievement.
Schlaug G, Forgeard M, Zhu L, Norton A, Norton A, Winner E. Training-induced Neuroplasticity in Young Children. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2009;1169:205-208.
Hyde KL, Lerch J, Norton A, Forgeard M, Winner E, Evans AC, Schlaug G. Musical training shapes structural brain development. Journal of Neuroscience 2009;29:3019-3025.
Forgeard M, Winner E, Norton A, Schlaug G. Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. Public Library of Science Online (PLoS ONE) 2008; 3:e3566.
Der Spiegel Online Interview with Dr. Oliver Sacks March 13, 2008
James J. Hudziak MD, Matthew D. Albaugh Ph.D., Simon Ducharme MD, Sherif Karama MD Ph.D., Margaret Spottswood MD, Eileen Crehan BA, Alan C. Evans Ph.D. Kelly N. Botteron MD for the Brain Development Cooperative Group Cortical Thickness Maturation and Duration of Music Training: Health-Promoting Activities Shape Brain Development, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2014 Vol 53, Issue 11, pp. 1153–1161.e2 (James Hudziak analyzed brain scans of 232 kids ages 6 to 18)