There is a wide array of activities children can engage in, from sports to dance to chess. For parents who are particularly interested in helping their children develop intellectually, modern neuroscience and psychology seem to point in one direction. What they find is that music lessons, and in particular instrumental lessons, cause measurable effects in the development of the children’s brains and cognitive abilities.
Written by: Mihai Preda, Ph.D.
A popular theme in the 1990’s, the so-called “Mozart effect” was the idea that you can improve your intelligence by listening to music by Mozart. Experiments have managed to confirm only short-term improvements in the subjects’ visual-spatial skills. However, it is unlikely that passive listening can lead to any substantial improvements.
Since then, improvements in brain imaging techniques that allow researchers to image neural activity while a person is performing a cognitive task, have allowed numerous researchers to investigate the connection between instrumental training, brain development and cognitive function. Together with psychological tests, these studies have come to confirm that learning to play an instrument has many long-term beneficial effects on the brain.
A study on 4 to 6-year-olds found that the musically trained children had better working memory (Fujiokaet al. 2006). Brain scans on 9 to 11 years olds have shown that children who play musical instruments have significantly more grey matter volume in several areas of the brain, and the increase seems to correlate with the intensity of the training (Schlaug et al 2005). Other researchers (Schellenberg 2006; Patel and Iverson 2007) indicate that musicians perform significantly better than non-musicians on tests of spatial-temporal skills, math ability, reading, vocabulary, verbal memory, and phonemic awareness. Music lessons were correlated with abilities associated with fluid intelligence, such as working memory, perceptual organization, processing speed, and with better verbal comprehension and high school grades.
Perhaps the most ambitious project in this field is currently unfolding at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, which houses a state-of-the-art concert auditorium alongside neuroimaging and research labs. The institute, endowed with Steinway concert pianos, is currently performing a five-year research project to investigate the emotional, social, and cognitive effects of musical training on the brain development of children who are exposed to intensive music education.
While the correlation between instrument lessons, brain development, and cognition is by now well established, a lot more research is still left to be done. Parents interested in taking advantage of what we know so far have good reasons to consider signing up their children for music and instrument lessons.
Of the instruments which can be played by children, the piano has several obvious advantages:
• it is easy to produce a sound on the piano- just press a key
• the quality of the sound does not depend on the player but on the instrument (a high-quality instrument such as a Steinway produces a high-quality sound)
• the pitches are ordered from low on the left to high on the right, a pattern which makes playing easy songs immediately obvious to children and parents alike
• interested parents can learn very quickly to assist their children in the learning process, and to join in the music-making.