Piano lessons have been a part of children’s lives for generations. Many of us remember having to come home after school to practice for an hour every day. Most of us hated it and were told, “You’ll thank me later.” Today, many parents believe that it is better to allow the child to choose his or her own hobby or activity, and not force the child to do something he or she doesn’t really want to do. Recent research, however, is showing that there was an unwitting reason that Mom or Dad forced us to sit at the piano and practice.
Have you ever used the phrase “It’s like riding a bicycle; you never forget”? Research is showing that there is a reason that we never forget how to ride a bicycle. As a child is growing, the brain develops parts of the sensory cortex that are dedicated to physical skills, like riding a bicycle or playing a musical instrument. The following is excerpted from an article, “Playing Along with the Mozart Effect,” that appeared in the March 1, 2010 edition of the Los Angeles Times (firstname.lastname@example.org / Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times / http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-he-0301-brain-music-20100301,0,3251510,full.story)
- For all its beauty, power and capacity to move, researchers have concluded that music is little more than ear candy for the brain if it is consumed only passively. If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, the latest word from science is you’ll need more than hype and a loaded iPod.
- You gotta get in there and play. Or sing, bang or pluck. …
- Learning to make music changes the brain and boosts broad academic performance. Findings across the board suggest that, even for a kid who will not grow up to be a Wynton Marsalis or a Joshua Bell, spending money and time on music lessons and practice is a solid investment in mental fitness. …
The article also cites a study by University of Toronto psychologists who found that listening to music is beneficial, but the effects don’t last unless one is actually engaged in performing music by playing or singing. Students who had keyboard or voice lessons for one year boosted their IQ by 3 points, on average. The Times author points out that 3 points may not seem like much, but that “IQ is a reliable predictor of a child’s performance in school. Better performance in school typically leads to more and better schooling — which, in turn, further increases IQ.”
Some additional physiological facts from the Times article:
- Learning to make music engages and demands coordination among many brain regions, including those that process sights, sounds, emotions and memories, says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist.
- Years ago, Schlaug found a glaring and suggestive difference between the brains of 30 professional musicians and 30 non-musician adults of matched age and gender.
- In the musicians, the bundle of connective fibers that carry messages between the brain’s right and left hemispheres — a structure called the corpus callosum — was larger and denser on average than that of their non-musical peers. The brawnier bridge was particularly notable toward the rear of the brain, at the crossing that links areas responsible for sensory perception and voluntary movement.
- It suggested not only that musicians might be able to more nimbly react to incoming information but also that their brains might be more resilient and adaptable, allowing right and left hemispheres, which specialize in separate functions, to work better together.
What does all this mean? It means that the time for your child to start learning the piano is right now. The learning window for music is between the ages of 3 and 10. Very few concert-level musicians begin playing later than the age of 10. Again, from the Times article:
- Schlaug and colleagues also found that the musicians who had begun their musical training before the age of 7 showed the most pronounced differences — suggesting an early start might rewire the brain most dramatically.
- Newer work has shown that music also enhances mental performance. In a study published last March, Schlaug and a team of researchers in Boston put 31 first-graders through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans, as well as a series of cognitive skills tests, to gauge the effect of 15 months of keyboard training. Compared with kids getting a playful group music class once a week, 6-year-olds who got intensive, weekly, one-on-one music instruction had greater and more widespread expansion in volume across many areas of their brains. And they performed better on tests of fine motor skill and of several other skills directly related to music. But the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, failed to find improvements in cognitive skills not directly related to musical skills, such as word recall, language discrimination, abstract reasoning and spatial and visual problem-solving.
- Other studies have found that music instruction may indeed make you smarter. A team led by [Professor Laurel] Trainor reported that in kids chosen randomly to get a tightly structured instrumental training called the Suzuki method, brain responses were two to three years more mature on average than those in children not taking music lessons.
- Electrical signals traveled more swiftly and efficiently through the brains of the Suzuki-trained kids, who also showed improved performance on tasks that required sustained attention and the ability to hold information in memory long enough to execute complex tasks — what neuroscientists call working memory.
- “What happens in music lessons is they’re fun,” Trainor says. “But at the same time, they’re very demanding. The child has to hold an instrument, position his hands, listen to the sound the teacher’s making, reproduce that sound, hold in mind the sound and compare it, assess pitch and sound quality, and change that if necessary.
- “All that takes a tremendous amount of attention. It trains kids how to accomplish things, and it trains memory as well,” Trainor adds. “All that is going to make you better at learning.”
It is certainly harder to learn an instrument as an adult (but still worthwhile!). What can we, as parents, do about musical influence in our child’s life? We can sing songs with our children and play structured, melodic music. If the child shows any musical aptitude or interest at all, get an instrument into his or her hands early.
There are those who believe that music is not necessary for modern society, that it is a luxury for those who have the time, money and inclination for it. Every year, we see the loss of more and more music and arts programs for the curriculum of our schools due to the lack of, or reduction of, funding from government and other sources.
The fact is, history shows that, as a society grows in knowledge and enlightenment, music and the rest of the arts push further and further into the forefront of society. The defining factor of a civilization itself is the level of the arts in its society, not only at the level of the player, but the level of the listener as well. Not every child will have the intrinsic ability to be another Liberace or Placido Domingo, but every child can be given the gift of responding to music on more than just an emotional level.
Piano lessons, or music lessons of any kind, at an early age, will not only create abilities that the child will carry for the rest of his or her life, but will help to imprint a love of music that will be a defining characteristic in the child’s personality and will help to establish the ability to discipline himself or herself for difficult tasks later in life. So, when your child complains about having to practice, just smile and say, “You’ll thank me later.”