The next time your kid becomes agitated or throws a tantrum because they want to play their favorite video game instead of participating in that family outing, try sending them to piano lessons instead of their room.

girl playing grand piano
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Scientists have now found a direct correlation between studying music and the emotional and behavioral maturation in children. This remarkable discovery adds to decades of research linking music lessons with higher IQ scores, improved ability to learn languages, enhanced spatial-temporal reasoning, and elevated memory skills. Studying music early on has even been credited with staving off dementia in later life.

The Research

Researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine conducted one of the largest studies ever on the effects of music education on brain development. Using a massive MRI database, they took brain scans of 232 healthy children from 6-18 who played a musical instrument.  “What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument,” said James Hudziak, a lead researcher in the study, “it accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management, and emotional control,” the Washington Post reported.

Why the study matters

With so many cuts to music programs across North America, despite the mountain of evidence showing the cognitive, physiological and now emotional/behavioral benefits associated with learning an instrument, it’s disturbing to learn fewer and fewer children and teenagers are being exposed to music through the public education system. The authors also pointed out another alarming statistic: three-quarters of high school students “rarely or never” receive extracurricular lessons in the music or the arts.

With music studies often treated as optional or “frill” programs by many school boards, the message that it sends can be confusing. Conscientious parents must wonder if studying music is really that important or whether other activities requiring less commitment and resources could be just as effective in building happy, well-rounded successful adults. A recent landmark study from Germany tracking the long terms effects of music lessons on children compared to other activities found “music improves cognitive and noncognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance“. The researchers also found that children who took music lessons “had better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious“.

Why it’s all worth it

On a recent visit to my home, one of my children after muttering a brief greeting made a beeline right to my grand piano.  As I listened to him effortlessly knock off some challenging jazz standards, the gratification I felt was second only to the unmistakable joy and satisfaction that he was obviously experiencing. Simultaneously I recalled the numerous times as a child he begged us to quit lessons; thankfully we were able to hold our ground long enough to allow enough time (and practice) to pass, so these magical moments could be savored for the rest of his life.

child with piano
Image Courtesy of Flickr

Experiencing first-hand the principle of “sticking with it” was just one of many important life lessons learning how to play a musical instrument taught him.

For me though, the real prize is the music itself. If there was no other benefit to learning music than just experiencing the kind of joy that comes from being able to play an instrument or sing, it would still be worth every sacrifice, every sour note, every dollar and every whine and gripe we might endure along the way. Being able to make music is a sublime and transformative experience that profoundly enriches one’s life. Ask anyone who can make music, and they’ll nod in agreement. The fact that music makes you smarter healthier and happier just adds more delicious layers of icing on top of an already well-frosted cake.

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