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Are music lessons the key to smarter kids?

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My 4 year-old son Jamie started piano lessons last year. This might seem a little young, but the classes are designed to make learning music fun. Jamie’s teachers use an unique multi-sensory approach that engages the different senses: auditory, visual and kinaesthetic (movement).

The kids learn the notes as: do, re, mi, fa, so, etc, and each note has a corresponding colour, place on the body (do, the lowest note, is down on the toes…), and animal!

The teachers believe piano is the best instrument to start on because:

  • All of the notes are easily accessible – meaning each note is as easy to play (push down) as another.  Lots of instruments require a combination of keys or strings to be manovured, co-ordination of stance and holding an instrument in a precise position, or positioning of lips and lung capacity to produce different notes. Not an easy task for young children!
  • Notes are visually laid out in order from lowest to highest so it is easy to understand.
  • The piano is an instrument where the player learns to play both melody and harmony (chords) whereas most orchestral instruments are single line instruments.

Because music is perceived through the ear, the best way to train an ear is through singing and listening. So Jamie’s teachers ask him to sing as he plays so he develops good pitch sense and rhythm.

The wonderfully engaging way he is learning music started me thinking, what does the research say about children and music?

Learning music from a young age can boost the executive brain function of both adults and children.

Executive functions are the high-level cognitive processes that enable you to do things like:

  • quickly process and retain information
  • regulate your behaviour
  • make good choices
  • solve problems
  • plan and adjust to changing mental demands.

A recent study that appeared in the journal PLOS ONE, used functional MRI brain imaging to reveal a possible biological link between early musical training and improved executive functioning in both children and adults.

The study compared 15 musically trained children, aged 9 to 12, with a control group of 12 untrained children of the same age. Musically trained children had to have played an instrument for at least two years in regular private music lessons. And on average, the children had played for 5.2 years and practiced 3.7 hours per week, starting at the age of 5.9.

Fifteen adults who were active professional musicians were similarly compared to 15 non-musicians.

The study found that:

Musically trained children and adults showed enhanced performance on several aspects of executive functioning.

We know that executive functioning abilities are more predictive of ‘academic readiness’ for schooling than intelligence, and predict maths and reading skills throughout all levels of schooling. So developing these skills is crucial for academic readiness and long-term achievement.

Study senior investigator Nadine Gaab, PhD, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s says,

Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications.

And she adds,

Our results may also have implications for children and adults who are struggling with executive functioning, such as children with ADHD or [the] elderly. Future studies have to determine whether music may be utilised as a therapeutic intervention tools for these children and adults.

On fMRI, the children with musical training showed enhanced activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex during a test that made them switch between mental tasks. As Nadine Gaab explains,

While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future.

 


 

I’d love to know your thoughts on this finding.

If you have kids, do they learn a musical instrument? Or did you learn one as a child yourself?

 

Image credit: wikicomms media

Jennifer Zuk, Christopher Benjamin, Arnold Kenyon, Nadine Gaab. Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians.PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (6). 

The post Are music lessons the key to smarter kids? appeared first on Your Brain Health.

Sarah McKay

Sarah is a neuroscientist and writer, and the founder of Your Brain Health. As a PhD trained neuroscientist (not a doctor) Sarah has found her passion writing and talking about science and medicine. Her goal is to make neuroscience research simple and relevant to your everyday life.