Will Piano Lessons Make My Child Smarter?

The following are excerpts from an article by Vadim Prokhorov, found in Parade Magazine dated 6/14/1998:

“New scientific studies have shown that early musical training shapes children’s growing brains and boosts their learning power, aiding in the development of logic, abstract thinking, memory and creativity.”

“The researchers—Dr. Gordon Shaw, a physicist at the University of California at Irvine, and Dr. Frances Rauscher, a psychologist now at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh” “….Drs. Rauscher and Shaw began working with inner-city preschoolers to see how musical training might affect their brain development. They had four groups: One was given keyboard lessons; the second, computer lessons; the third, singing sessions; and the fourth, no lessons, only the standard curriculum. Six months later, the key board students performed 34 per cent better on spatial-temporal ability tests than any other group, including the computer students.

How does music affect the brain? After birth, a child’s brain keeps developing. Both environ- ment and experience continue to create mental circuits and patterns between neurons—the tiny, electrically charged nerve cells that transfer information through the brain. The brain has trillions of such neurons, but scientists have found that if it does not use some of them and does not form path ways between the neurons, it starts to trim them. It prunes itself. In other words, either you use it or you lose it. The richer the environment the child inhabits, the richer the brain network.”

“Studies suggest that the more parents sing or play melodious and structured music to their baby, the more the baby’s brain generates neural circuits and patterns.”

“There’s an overlap in the brain mechanism—in the neurons used to process music, language, mathematics and abstract reasoning,” says Dr. Mark Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. “We believe a handful of neural codes is used by the brain, so exercising the brain through music strengthens other cognitive skills. It’s a lot like saying: If you exercise your body by running, you enhance your ability not only to run but also to play soccer or basketball.”

“More than 2300 years ago, Plato said: “Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, and children should be taught music before anything else.” Some educators have taken that position as a guiding principle:” “…When people ask what is the most important subject that we teach, I say it’s music,” says Miriam Kronish, a principal at John Eliot Elementary School in Needham, Mass., where students are engaged daily in music and other arts classes.”

“The academic achievements resulting from this approach can be impressive. For years the students at John Eliot—one of the least-affluent schools in Needham—have scored among the highest in Massachusetts on the basic skills test. When the school’s fourth-graders recently were tested by the state, they got 1600 out of 1600 in math (the state average is 1330), 1580 in reading, 1570 in science and 1560 in social studies.”

“The gains appear to be social as well. “With music the children interact better,” says Diane Fraggos, a fifth-grade teacher at John Eliot. “They stay more focused on the task and listen better to directions.”

“My children do their homework the same way they practice music,” reports Thomas Healy, who has had two daughters at John Eliot “They aren’t afraid of repetition and do not give up easily.”

“Music teaches children to be confident,” stresses Jayne Ellicott of Ashley River Elementary School, “and to believe in themselves.”

“….Not surprisingly, all of those who have studied the issue agree that learning music and understanding its dynamics make a much greater impression on the brain than simply listening to it.”

“…There are many reasons to teach music to children, and enhancing their brain power is only one of them. Even the scientists who conducted the neurological studies believe it would be regrettable if that became the main focus of music education. “It is ironic and sad,” says Dr. Rauscher, “that all this attention is brought to the importance of music because it does something nonmusical.”

Music can soothe emotions and excite enthusiasm, and it gives us a sense of cultural identity. Music should be taught for these values—and not least for the pleasure it brings the listener.”