New Research Shows How Music Lessons During Childhood Benefit the Brain for a Lifetime

As a some­time musi­cian, it’s only nat­ur­al that I want my four-year-old daugh­ter to take an inter­est in music. Sure, it’s a fun bond­ing activ­i­ty, and sure, there may be a bit of a stage dad lurk­ing inside me at times. But I’m also con­vinced of the tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits play­ing a musi­cal instru­ment can have on one’s per­son­al devel­op­ment. New sci­ence, it seems, backs up this intu­ition. The Wash­ing­ton Post report­ed last year on a recent study from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty which found that “Music train­ing not only helps chil­dren devel­op fine motor skills, but aids emo­tion­al and behav­ioral mat­u­ra­tion as well.”

This may not come as a sur­prise. And yet, the details of the study pro­vide insights our intu­itions about the pow­er of musi­cal edu­ca­tion may lack. For one thing, as you can see in the CNN report above, the ben­e­fits of learn­ing to play music as a child can last for decades, even if some­one hasn’t picked up an instru­ment since those ear­ly lessons. As Dr. Nina Kraus, direc­tor of Northwestern’s Audi­to­ry Neu­ro­science Lab­o­ra­to­ry, explains, good musi­cal tim­ing is strong­ly cor­re­lat­ed with read­ing skills and gen­er­al men­tal acu­ity. Accord­ing to a co-author of the study, James Hudzi­ak, pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont, ear­ly musi­cal train­ing was shown to have “accel­er­at­ed cor­ti­cal orga­ni­za­tion in atten­tion skill, anx­i­ety man­age­ment and emo­tion­al con­trol.” These brain changes can accom­pa­ny us well into old age.

Anoth­er, Cana­di­an study, pub­lished in Feb­ru­ary in the The Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science, found that child­hood music lessons boost the abil­i­ty of old­er adults to hear speech, a skill that begins to weak­en lat­er in life. The study found “robust” evi­dence that “start­ing for­mal lessons on a musi­cal instru­ment pri­or to age 14 and con­tin­u­ing intense train­ing for up to a decade appears to enhance key areas in the brain that sup­port speech recog­ni­tion.” Even music lessons tak­en lat­er life can help reha­bil­i­tate the brains of old­er adults. “The find­ings,” writes Sci­ence Dai­ly, “under­score the impor­tance of music instruc­tion in schools and in reha­bil­i­ta­tive pro­grams for old­er adults.”

Music teach­ers cer­tain­ly need this kind of evi­dence to bol­ster sup­port for ail­ing pro­grams in schools, and musi­cal­ly-inclined par­ents will cheer these find­ings as well. But before the stage par­ent in you begins enrolling your kid in every music les­son you can fit into the sched­ule, take heed. As Dr. Kraus dis­cov­ered in the North­west­ern study, forc­ing kids to show up and par­tic­i­pate under duress won’t exer­cise their brains. Real, active engage­ment is key. “We like to say that ‘mak­ing music mat­ters,’” says Kraus, “because it is only through the active gen­er­a­tion and manip­u­la­tion of sound that music can rewire the brain.” While musi­cal train­ing may be one par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoy­able way to strength­en cog­ni­tion, it isn’t the only way. But even if they don’t stick with it, the kids will­ing to put in the hours (and yes, the longer the bet­ter) will expe­ri­ence pos­i­tive change that lasts a life­time.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Play­ing an Instru­ment Is a Great Work­out For Your Brain: New Ani­ma­tion Explains Why

The Neu­ro­science of Drum­ming: Researchers Dis­cov­er the Secrets of Drum­ming & The Human Brain

This is Your Brain on Jazz Impro­vi­sa­tion: The Neu­ro­science of Cre­ativ­i­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Dawn Light says:

    I did­n’t have music lessons when I was a child, just prac­tic­ing ran­dom­ly singing, the gui­tar, and har­mon­i­ca… But, yes, I real­ly think that even that sequences act­ed as a ben­e­fit. Lat­er I could lis­ten plen­ty clas­si­cal music. This pas­sive prac­tice ben­e­fit­ed on me too… Lat­er, on my ear­ly thir­ty, I start­ed learn­ing singing and the piano, but give after a few years.
    Then hap­haz­ard­ly, on my mid­dle fifty I dis­cov­ered Tay­lor Swift and start­ed back lean­ing the piano. Four Years Now… And here is my point. I’ve dis­cov­ered that this seri­ous prac­tice helped me to under­stand and remind things bet­ter and faster. Com­put­er pro­gram­ming I could fig­ure noth­ing out of it. It’s clear­er now. Prob­a­bil­i­ty and suites in math­e­mat­ics are clear­er, learn­ing a new lan­guage is eas­i­er, and so, and so… And, indeed, dis­cov­er­ing this fact is a great moti­va­tion to con­tin­ue prac­tic­ing the piano :)
    Here’s my lat­est impro­vi­sa­tion. I did it as a con­tri­bu­tion to the World Peace

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