Feature: Childhood music lessons develop brainpower

Childhood music lessons develop brainpower

By Rosalind Golden

Dust off the keyboards, restring the guitars and start singing. Research shows that childhood music lessons deliver lasting and profound benefits to the brain.

Ever since researchers Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw reported in 1993 that listening to Mozart for just 10 minutes temporarily enhances spatial-temporal ability (the brain’s ability to envision and rotate images), a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that music not only stimulates us, it activates the brain, enhances learning, and boosts our ability to think and reason.

“Recent studies show conclusively that learning to read music and play the piano increases a child’s rate of learning in math, science and reading,” said Jim Mullen, president and CEO of Adventus Incorporated, a Halifax company offering award-winning online piano programs.

“The process of reading and performing on the piano is quite involved,” he said. That process, he added, aids child development.

It also may nudge IQ upward.

E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga tracked 132 first graders over a period of a year to discover if childhood music lessons raise IQ. IQ was tested at the beginning and then at the end of the study. Schellenberg reported that after only nine months, children receiving piano or voice lessons averaged 7-point gains in IQ scores. The average gain for the control group was 4.3 points, which is in keeping with gains due to education, according to his 2004 research report in Psychological Science.

Reading and analyzing notes, deciding the intensity of the performance of a note and then playing those notes is an effective exercise for the cerebral cortex, Mullen said.

“The effect is to physically grow the brain, no matter what your age,” he said.

Though all ages can benefit by taking music lessons, research suggests that the biggest benefits to the brain are realized with childhood music lessons.

Music lessons in childhood actually enlarge the brain. The study of musicians’ brains reveals that the earlier music lessons began, the bigger the region of the brain that identifies pitch, as much as 25% larger, University of Munster researchers reported in 1998.

Brain scans also reveal that musicians who have trained from a young age have a larger planum temporale, the area of the brain associated with reading skills, and a thicker corpus callosum, the part of the brain connecting the left and right hemispheres, Leipzig researchers reported in 1994.

The benefits are about more than brain size and playing music. The thickening of the corpus callosum enables both sides of the brain to respond to stimulus simultaneously.

What’s more, childhood music lessons improve word power.

Psychologists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong studying 90 boys between age six and 15 discovered that musical training improves verbal memory. The more musical training, the more words the students could recall.

Music lessons aside, listening to music can aid retention of information. Researchers from the University of North Texas discovered in 1982 that music can be helpful when memorizing vocabulary words.

As brain study advances, so does our understanding of how music activates the brain. While music was at one time considered an activity that involved only one side of the brain, research confirms music involves many areas of the brain.

Brain-imaging studies during musical tasks reveal that the combined activity of sight reading and playing music activates areas in all four of the cortex’s lobes and parts of the cerebellum.

The academic benefits of music and music lessons extend beyond word power to math power. Children who have music lessons, particularly piano lessons, have better success with proportional math and fractions. And the benefits are long-term.

According to the College-Bound Seniors National Report by the College Entrance Examination Board, studying music seems to boost SAT scores as well. Students who study music performance and music appreciation scored higher on their SATs than students who did not participate in arts.

Beyond IQ, SATs and literacy, music lessons have significant psychological and social benefits.

Among the other oft-reported benefits are improved fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, better concentration and focus, increased confidence and self-esteem, and enhanced creative thinking and social skills.

Also, music lessons may make students more resilient to substance abuse than their peers, according to the 1994 Texas School Survey of Substance Abuse Among Students: Grades 7-12.

“A challenging music program improves students overall attitude towards learning, and their behaviour in school,” Mullen said.

Mullen believes that music lessons are a positive influence that should begin early. The earlier they start, the further they develop, he said.

The issue isn’t about our children becoming world-famous musicians. Music lessons create complex brain pathways simply through the effort of learning music. Those brain pathways lead to better thinking skills and to success in school and life. And that’s music to everyone’s ears. Can I hear a chorus of bravos for budding brainpower?