Plato said that music “is a more potent instrument than any other for education.”
Researchers and educators now understand why.
A new body of research suggests music training at an early age can develop the neural connections necessary for understanding complex mathematical and scientific concepts. This research shows an important link between musical training and other cognitive abilities, particularly spatial logic skills. This is particularly important with activities that require logical reasoning such as chess, science, math, engineering, and computer programming.
Three-year-old children were given music instruction on the piano keyboard. Their spatial abilities were tested before they started lessons (pre-testing). Their scores were compared to children who received lessons on the computer, children who participated in casual group singing sessions but who did not receive formal music instruction, and children who received no special training. Although the four groups of children’s pre-test scores did not differ, the post-testing revealed that the children who had received the keyboard instruction scored 34% higher on spatial-temporal reasoning. The others showed no improvement.
A Potent Instrument
Scientists believe that music encourages the formation of neural connections essential for scientific endeavors. Many parents and educators have held this view for years, but it is only within the last decade or so that the scientific research in this area has come into its own. Although research has shown that even listening to music affects human intelligence, the strongest effects of music are to be found from active participation in music making. Plato once said that music “is a more potent instrument than any other for education.” Researchers and scientists now understand why.
Dr. Justine Sergent of the Montreal Neurological Institute, when talking about reading and playing a musical score, stated that “it is hard to think of any other human activity that calls for the implementation of so many processes for their immediate realization”. A child working on a mathematical problem can sit back and ponder it for as long as necessary before committing pencil to paper. The same child, playing with a band, must keep up with the group and at the same time think ahead to prepare for what is coming. In no other subject is a child called upon to make four or five decisions per second and to act on them continuously for long stretches of time. Scientists now believe that children who have taken piano lessons may be able to learn more easily and store information better than children who are not given the opportunity to participate in music making.
Helping Each Other
In addition to these benefits, the social climate of music instruction is marked by cooperation, whereas in most other subjects cooperation is either totally lacking or replaced by a climate of competition. Only by working together can students play a musical performance. They learn that cooperation is a means to an end, which can be applied, to other goals.
Although our understanding of the human brain, how it develops, and how it works is far from complete, study after study has shown a direct link to keyboard study at an early age and enhanced cognitive ability. Harry Chugani of Wayne State University stated that early experiences are so powerful that “they can completely change the way a person turns out.” Like other circuits formed early in life, the ones for music endure. Chugani played the guitar as a child, then gave it up. A few years later he took piano lessons with his young daughter and had a very difficult time keeping up with her. However, when he picked up a guitar, he found to his delight that “the songs [were] still there,” much like the skill of riding a bicycle.
Happier and Smarter
Of all the benefits of music education–and there are many–possibly the most important and oftentimes most overlooked benefit is the profound effect that music education at an early age can have on brain development, potentially affecting a myriad of things throughout one’s life. We’ve known for a long time music makes you happier, but indeed we now know it makes you smarter as well.