February 5, 2020

Conventional Wisdom in Parenting Part V: Is it important that your child learn how to play a musical instrument?

By Devon MacEachron

How as parents can we decide which extracurricular activities to expose our 2e children to - which have the greatest potential to benefit them? Sports? Art? Music? Theater? Nature camp? Chess? Travel? Community service? Academic programs? I often recommend following your child's interests, but being proactive also has its benefits.

As a parent I decided music was important after reading the book Good Music Brighter Children: Simple and Practical Ideas to Help Transform Your Child's Life Through the Power of Music by Sharlene Habermeyer. She has a website too.

After reviewing the scientific literature, I’m even more convinced.

Music training benefits the neural encoding of speech and improves reading. Both music and speech use pitch, timing, temporal processing, and timbre to convey information, and evidence suggests that years of processing these cues in a fine-grained way in music enhances their processing in speech. Children who receive music training become stronger readers.

This could help children with dyslexia.

Children with dyslexia have difficulty with auditory processing. One deficit is with the ability to discriminate the rate of change of amplitude envelope at a sound’s onset (its “rise time”). In speech, amplitude envelopes play an important role as cues to speech rhythm and syllable boundaries, which in turn help listeners segment words and sounds from the flow of speech. Problems in envelope perception during language development in dyslexia could result in weaker phonological representations at the syllable-level, which would then undermine the ability to consciously segment syllables into individual speech sounds (phonemes). If you’re interested in this line of research, the brilliant Dr. Usha Goswami at Cambridge has done work in the area. In support of Goswami’s ideas, a meta-analysis of studies measuring dyslexics’ performance on non-speech auditory tasks and on reading tasks reported that amplitude modulation and rise time discrimination were linked to developmental dyslexia in 100% of the studies reviewed. More broadly, poor performance in tasks requiring temporal processing, rhythm perception and sensorimotor synchronization seem to be crucial factors underlying dyslexia in children.

I wondered to what extent music training could help dyslexic children and children predisposed toward dyslexia with these key pre-reading abilities. A randomized control study testing the effect of music training in enhancing phonological and reading abilities found that phonological awareness and reading skills were improved in children with dyslexia after 7 months of 20-minute per day instruction focusing on rhythm and temporal processing (e.g. use of percussive instruments and sensorimotor synchronization games).

Music training benefits working memory and executive function, and this could help children with ADHD.

Children who undergo musical training have better verbal working memory and executive functions. Why? Music unfolds over time. The auditory system must depend on working memory mechanisms that allow a stimulus to be maintained on-line to be able to relate one element in a sequence to another that occurs later. Also, at a broader level, musical activity links auditory, visual, proprioceptive, motor and emotional experience,  supporting multi-sensory and behavioral integration. A recent study showed that children included in an 18-months long instrumental music program developed improved working memory, outperforming a control group that followed a science program during the same period. There are studies (e.g. this one ) suggesting that music training can help children with ADHD become less distracted and fidgety in the classroom. It may also benefit time processing. Finally, making music in a group requires communication, coordination, and cooperation, which can reduce impulsivity and improve social skills.

There are emotional benefits to benefit all neurodiverse children.

Playing a musical instrument can lead to increases in self-esteem and provide a means to excel in a specific area. Music can become a vehicle for the expression of emotions. Perhaps most importantly, it can bring joy to the heart and soul.

At what age should music training begin?

I wondered if the benefits of music training are greatest when children are exposed at an early age, and there does seem to be an argument to that effect. Maria Montessori felt it was important for children to receive experience (in the form of singing games and bells designed to teach differences among musical sounds) between the ages of 2 ½ to 6. She called this the “sensitive period” for music learning. A “sensitive period” is a time window during which the brain is particularly receptive to making new neural connections. Input at a later date can still have an effect, but to a lesser degree. Studying language is like this. The sensitive period for language acquisition (especially for pronunciation) closes around the age of 6, but you can still learn French as an adult; it’s just going to be a little harder. From a neurological standpoint, beginning music lessons before the age of 7 appears to be advantageous.

Does that mean that older children don’t benefit?

No. In fact, it’s possible that children who begin instrument lessons later may be more likely to truly enjoy playing music (and therefore be more motivated to practice): they are learning music because they want to, not because their parents decided they should.

How much training is needed?

The degree of observed structural and functional adaptation in the brain correlates with intensity and duration of practice. A child who is given weekly music lessons but who dislikes the whole enterprise, who does not play any music outside of lessons (never practices or does performances), and who is not very attentive during lessons probably won’t benefit very much.

What should parents do? I feel the advice for parents is clear: promote music training in early childhood, as early as age 2 if possible. But make sure it's fun and engaging. Most children love early music classes and activities. Once formal instrument lessons begin, help your child choose an instrument they like. Find teachers who your child respects and who get your child. Encourage and support your child in their practice. And invite music into your home. Find opportunities to share musical experiences – concerts, listening to different genres in the car and at home, and making music together.

Finally, here’s a fun, animated TedEd video about the cognitive benefits of playing an instrument.

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