The benefits of a musical education

Dear Mr. Dad: I hear more and more that all children should have some formal music study. Is that true? What are the benefits, and how young should they start?

A: You can’t even swing a violin around in a bookstore anymore without hitting a book that claims that music is the answer to your every parental wish, from boosting intelligence to nurturing creative genius. A lot of these claims are exaggerated, but others are supported by solid research. More on that in a minute.

But first, the best reason to get your child involved in music is that it’s fun! Who doesn’t like music? And when it comes to exposing a child to music, there’s no such thing as too young—so keep your CD player and iPod well stocked with a wide variety of musical styles (yes, even some you aren’t wild about yourself) and just allow your child to listen.

Starting when your child is about two years old, you can take the next step and begin having your child actually participate in making music, through classes that feature movement, rhythm, and group singing. No need for anything more formal than that. What’s important is that the kids have a chance to hear, make, and respond to music.

As for formal lessons, kids as young as four or five can start piano or violin. But never push it, especially at this age, or you risk turning them off entirely. If your child does express a strong interest, find a teacher with the experience and temperament for youngsters.

Piano is a great foundation for the study of other instruments (it also makes beginners sound a lot better than a violin does). Many parents start their kids on piano to learn the basics, then give them the choice to switch instruments when the time is right.

School instrumental programs usually begin with strings in fourth grade, then winds in fifth grade, when the teeth and lips are ready. Even at this age, let your child’s interest be your guide. But once he or she has made a commitment to study an instrument, there’s nothing wrong with insisting that they stick with it.

Making music requires self-discipline, and that’s something that will serve the child in a hundred different ways later on. It also gives practice at problem-solving, understanding symbols, physical coordination, emotional communication, judgment, and even math fractions. It’s hard to think of anything else that offers this incredible combination.

Then there’s the much ballyhooed “Mozart Effect”—the idea that classical music makes kids smarter. While many of the wild claims are unfounded (“SAT scores zoom after listening to a piano sonata!”), recent research seems to show that music does have a pretty amazing effect on the brain—especially for very young children.

Evidence is mounting that kids are more efficient and adaptive thinkers if they have experienced active, hands-on training in music. A key study at McMaster University showed gains in mental efficiency and memory among preschool-aged children who took piano lessons for one year compared to students without formal musical experience. Other respectable studies have linked music lessons to higher achievement in high school math and science.

Researchers at UC Irvine gave computer training to one set of preschoolers while another group received piano lessons. At the end of two years, the groups were tested for reasoning skills – and the little pianists scored an average of 34 percent higher than the cyberkids!

All these benefits are wonderful, of course—but the main reason to have your kids take music lessons is for the pure joy of it. Sure, they’ll whine and stomp and fuss at practice time. But in the end, in addition to all the other benefits, they’ll have a lifelong talent that (believe it or not) they’ll thank you for.

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