Not every kid loves going to music lessons but maybe every kid should. Psychological studies have been discovering more and more amazing effects music has on our brains, especially when it’s actively played and not just listened to.
One particular longitudinal study by the German Socio-Economic Panel in 2013 put it this way (1):
“Music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance.”
The study also determined that kids who take music lessons “have better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious.”
Of course, the “correlation doesn’t equal causation” principle may apply here. Statistics need to be read carefully as it’s possible that smarter kids (with smarter parents) take music lessons more often than other kids and that’s why the statistics are skewed.
There are still lots of other factors to consider. However, the majority of them point in favor of music lessons. Here’s a quick list of some of the major neurological benefits music lessons seem to provide:
1. Improved verbal and reading skills
Many studies show a link between language processing and pitch processing skills (2). Researchers from the Northwestern University determined that there are 5 basic skills that are vital for language acquisition (3):
- Speech-in-noise perception
- Auditory working memory
- Phonological awareness
- Rhythm perception
- The ability to learn sound patterns
Several studies have found that all 5 of these skills are developed and strengthened best with music lessons compared to children who received other forms of non-musical stimulation, such as painting or other visual arts.
2. Improved IQ
Even though music is supposed to revolve around emotions and is very much an art form, it turns out it can help improve your academic IQ more than it does our emotional IQ (4). There are multiple studies that confirm classical musicians boast higher IQ scores than non-musicians, at least on average (5).
3. Improved spatial-temporal and mathematical reasoning
Anyone who’s played music understands that it’s intrinsically mathematical in nature. Rhythm, intervals, scales, and many more of music’s components end up teaching kids about mathematics as a bi-product of playing which explains why kids who play music tend to do better in math class (6). To put it succinctly – playing music improves our abstract special-temporal skills (7) which turn out to be vital in engineering, math, architecture, computer, art, and video games.
4. Improved grades
Playing music has been found to help with much more than just math (8). Kids who’ve learned to play music tend to have better grades across the board. As the University of Kansas’s study found, “elementary schools with superior music education programs scored around 22% higher in English and 20% higher in math scores on standardized tests compared to schools with low-quality music programs.” Another study out of Canada also seems to confirm this (9).
5. Improved motor cortex
Every single musical instrument requires amazing finger accuracy, dexterity, and stamina. So, it’s no surprise that music lessons improve kids’ motor cortex incredibly well. One study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2013 (10) found that kids who’ve learned to play music before the age of 7 tend to be much better at other motor and movement tasks as well.
6. Improved anxiety management
Researchers from the University of Vermont College of Medicine tested kids between the ages of 6 and 18 years and determined that musicians have a distinctively thickened cortex in the areas of the brain that are responsible for aggression, depression, and other attention problems (11). As the study’s authors put it, musical training “accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.”
7. Improved creativity
There are lots of different ways to measure creativity. However, all of them tend to agree that music training enhances creativity tremendously (12) “particularly when the musical activity itself is creative (for instance, improvisation).”
Ana Pinho, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (13), determined that musicians with “longer experience in improvising music had better and more targeted activity in the regions of the brain associated with creativity.”
8. Improved linguistic skills
People who’ve gone through quality music training as kids also tend to develop more complex vocabularies which can help not only with their native language but with their abilities to learn new languages (14). As a piece in the Guardian puts it (15), “Music training plays a key role in the development of a foreign language in its grammar, colloquialisms and vocabulary.”
9. Improved cognitive health and delayed cognitive decline
Thanks to all of its benefits to our brains, musical training also helps slow down cognitive decline and thus – slows down our brain’s aging (16). Playing music is also posed as an effective prevention tool against dementia according to many studies such as this one from the Emory University (17).
10. Improved working memory
Another great mental benefit of music training are the effects it has on our memory skills. A study from 2013 has shown that musical practice improves the player’s working memory capacity by encouraging them to memorize more and more material, as well as to process and react to these memories quickly (18).
As explained by William R. Klemm, a senior professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, a musician’s memory skills extend to all non-musical verbal realms, helping them remember more content from speeches, lectures or soundtracks. (19).
11. Improved listening skills
A lot of adults realize the importance of being a good listener, both in personal and in professional plan. Music training helps with that as well by improving kids’ “peripheral hearing” (20) and preventing the so-called “cocktail party problem” (21) a lot of non-musical people experience.
12. Improved self-confidence and self-esteem
If your child is having self-esteem problems, one of the best things you can do for him/her is professional music lessons. A study among 117 fourth-graders in 2004 found out that getting piano lessons once per week for a couple of years can dramatically and healthily improve a child’s self-confidence (22).
13. Improved long-term memory for visual stimuli
Aside from our working memory, music training can also help with our visual long-term memory. Researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington confirmed that long-term classical musicians who’ve played for more than 15 years have heightened visual sensitivity and memory than non-musicians (23). This relates to people who’ve trained with sheet music, however, and doesn’t show any results for people who’ve learned to play “by ear”.
With all these statistics and research already in our hands, and more coming in, it seems clear that virtually every child should have a go at classical music lessons before and around the age of 7.