< BACK TO: Parenting & Education

Tuned into success, The National, 24.11.09

Research linking music to brain development, language skills and study techniques shows that learning to play an instrument can help children perform better in school. Jo Wadham reports

This weekend the musicians taking the stage in the Abu Dhabi Classics Stars of Tomorrow Concert at the Emirates Palace will be impressive not only for their extraordinary talent, but also their age. The youngest is the eight-year-old pianist Elizaveta Marchenko, who will perform works by Chopin, Grieg and Rachmaninoff. Even if your children do not become concerto-playing prodigies, recent research suggests that introducing them to music at a young age can give them academic and social advantages.

Whilst playing Mozart to babies in the womb is no longer thought to have any lasting effect on their intelligence, a growing body of research suggests that the study and playing of music can improve children’s academic performance.

“I have taught piano for over 30 years,” explains Zhu Li, the principal of the International Music Institute in Abu Dhabi. “The best piano students are the best at maths at school, and those who have problems with piano are very weak at maths.” Li puts this down to the concentration and co-ordination skills students must develop for their music to progress.

“Learning music requires 100 per cent concentration. What you see on the page has to come through your fingers. At the same time, you have to read different clefs with notes in different positions. The right hand and the left hand follow different rhythms.”

Li’s observations are supported by research. In statistics published by the College Board in the US in 2001, students who had studied music and arts for more than four years averaged higher scores in aptitude tests than other students. In a 1997 study, published in the journal Neurological Research, piano and singing lessons were shown to be more effective in helping young children grasp mathematical and scientific concepts than training on computers.

This year, in the Psychology of Music journal, Dr Joseph Piro published findings that showed studying and playing music can enhance children’s reading and vocabulary skills. Piro’s study involved two groups of school children. One group received music tuition over a period of three years and the other did not. At the end of the study, the students who had received musical training showed higher verbal sequencing and vocabulary skills (both building block skills to literacy).

“Music and language are probably the most frequent forms of communication for children,” Piro says. Music and literacy share many common features and both require the two hemispheres of the brain to work together. Scientists believe that the right hemisphere is responsible for visual imagery, spatial recognition, face recognition and music, and the left is responsible for calculations, logic and maths.

Children who learn to play music acquire techniques that can be applied to literacy, from enhanced auditory skills to the mastering of sounds and rhythm. “Teaching music and literacy side by side allows children to crack the code of literacy by exposure to their mutual content,” Piro says. “Music mutually supports and strengthens. Children experience complimentary skills.”

However, his study did show that results are not quick: “It could take at least three or four years of continuous instruction for schools to see results.”

Another important factor appears to be the age at which music instruction begins. This could be linked to brain development. A study by Dr Gottfried Schlaug in 1995, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, proved that reading and music change the brain’s physical appearance. Using MRI scanning, Schlaug showed that the corpus callosum, the main tract between the brain’s hemispheres, was enlarged in musicians, allowing the two sides of their brains to communicate better. According to Piro, a child’s brain is more “plastic” and able to reorganise itself, through learning, particularly around the age of seven years. “This might be a critical period in brain development,” he says.

To reap the benefits in brain development, Piro says children need to play rather than listen to music. “In terms of cognitive construction, [passive listening] may not be quite as beneficial,” he says.

Regardless of the neurological impact, by mastering a musical instrument, children not only learn how to create a beautiful melody, but also build accompanying skills that Laura Chapple, a cello and bass teacher at The British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, says can make children better learners and help them achieve academically.

“The children acquire other qualities, too: self-discipline, determination, organisation. They can’t manage to become proficient in an instrument unless they are organised and efficient in what they do,” Chapple says.

Li agrees, saying this applies to musicians throughout their lives, from school to university to a successful career. “A concerto may be 100 pages long and they will need to memorise it. Of course this affects their studies. Study becomes easier, but it doesn’t come immediately. When they are young, they learn a short piece. The longer they play, the longer the pieces get. They learn a way to memorise that will affect their future work or research.”

Najla Mandour has four children who are all learning instruments. Her 15-year-old daughter, Rana, is working towards her grade seven exam in cello. Mandour says she has noticed how playing music has increased Rana’s self-confidence. “It’s amazing, really, how confident she is,” Mandour says. “Especially at this age when they can be very influenced by other teenagers, she is not swayed by her friends or by people saying something.”

Mandour played violin and piano as a child. “Music was a very important part of my life and I wanted to pass this on to them, whether it’s rap or Beethoven,” she says. “Studying music gets them to listen to all sorts of different things. It gives them a different perspective on life.”

Music may have far reaching social effects on children, too. The renowned violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki, the father of the Suzuki method of teaching the instrument to very young children by ear, is quoted as saying: “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.” 

In Venezuela, the state-funded El Sistema scheme created by Jose Antonio Abreu has been credited with keeping over a quarter of a million disadvantaged children off the streets and away from drugs and crime during the 35 years it has been running. The scheme, which has been copied in 25 countries, gives children lunch, a clean shirt and the opportunity to learn an instrument with a view ultimately to performing with an orchestra. Famous alumni include the members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel, the 28-year-old conductor who joined El Sistema at the age of six and became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last month.

The model has been copied in the UK in Stirling, Scotland, and areas of England with a programme called In Harmony, chaired by cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Teachers have reported that students who participate show better behaviour and concentration at school and are full of confidence and enthusiasm.

Before the advent of television, families would often sing or play music together in the evenings. In modern times, whilst music is no less important, our involvement is generally on a much more passive level. Where children are involved, this could mean they are being short-changed.

As Emma Stansfield, a violin teacher at The British School Al Khubairat, says: “Music brings together everything at once: emotion, intellect, creativity, physicality, listening. There is a way into it for every child.”

Comments are closed.