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Seven ways music boosts that brain

Recent research underscores how playing an instrument (sooner than later) bolsters kids' academic, social, and emotional lives.

By Rob Baedeker

When her son started kindergarten at a public school in Berkeley, Calif., Marion Atherton just assumed that music would be part of his education.

As the director of the Crowden School, a Bay Area non-profit that offers music education to children who don't have access to it, Atherton took it for granted that her own son's school would teach music. She soon learned differently: her son wouldn't be getting any music classes until third grade.

"I was sort of shocked," said Atherton. "Here I am director of the Crowden Center, and my own children don't have a music program?"

Her son's school was not alone: A 2008 study by the Center on Education Policy found a narrowing of school curricula had resulted in a significant shift away from arts and music programs nationwide: since 2001-2002, 16 percent of elementary school districts have reduced their instructional time in arts and music.

Such cuts to music education are particularly ironic given the growing body of research that underscores how music engages many of same areas of the brain involved in language processing, memory, and other critical thinking skills essential for academic success. Music also appeares to benefit kids socially and emotionally.

Here are seven areas where studies have shown the benefits of music to kids' education and development:

Language processing: Several recent studies suggest that the brain processes music and language in similar ways, and that training in music may have benefits for language-related skills. The Neurosciences Institute reports that its research has "revealed a significant degree of overlap between music and language processing," and in a 2005 study , researchers at Stanford University found that mastering a musical instrument improves the way the human brain processes parts of spoken language. The findings suggested that students who are struggling with language and reading skills could especially benefit from musical training.

Memory: The benefits of music training appear to extend to memory, too. A 2003 study by researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that children with musical training showed better verbal memory than their peers. "When these children were followed up after a year," the study's authors wrote, "those who had begun or continued music training demonstrated significant verbal memory improvement." In other words, memorizing music pieces correlated with improvements in non-musical memory, too.

This correlation may stem from particular ways that music "challenges" young minds. Takako Fujioka, a scientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and co-author of a study that found musically trained children showed greater improvement on memory tests throughout the course of a year than their non-musically trained peers, explains that playing music "requires the brain to solve the problems of how to allocate attention and memory toward complex tasks."

Math: If you've ever tried to read even a simple piece of music — or bang a drum in time to a beat, you know that music requires you to preform mathematical processes (like division) on the fly. But research has also shown a link between music education and success in school math. A study by The Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada, for example, concentrated on the effects of arts education on elementary school students, and found that students in the arts program "scored significantly higher on mathematical tests of computation and estimation" than did students in a control group.

Self-Awareness: Dr. Frank Wilson, a neurologist and an authority on the relationship of hand use to human cognitive development, explains that the study of music teaches children to "self assess," rather than to rely on external rewards. While much of our schooling focuses on grades and prizes, music can foster an internal motivation. The precision and attention required to play an instrument — the instant feedback loop that requires you to adjust your own performance — encourages an "ongoing surveillance of yourself," Wilson says. "It leads you to become a critic of your own work, to not be satisfied with anything less than achieving what it was you intended to do."

Social skills: Takako Fujioka, of the Rotman Research Institute, points out that the benefits of playing music go beyond academic applications: "When you participate in music in a community or a school, you develop shared memories during musical activities. It's a bonding experience."

That bonding can also develop kids' ability to work together. Sharon Burch, an elementary school music teacher who developed the "Freddy the Frog" series of books and activities to teach the fundamentals of music to children, has also seen the effects of music on students' social well-being. "I teach 450 kids per year," she says, "and I notice that the kids involved in music are the most well-behaved, have the most confidence, and are doing well in their academic classes."

Academic success: With all the benefits that music brings to kids' language, math, memory and self-assessment, it's little surprise that there is a strong correlation between music and general academic success. Studies have shown that students in music programs scored higher in English and math than students who had no music at all, and high school students with music training scored higher than their non-musical peers on the SAT, according to the College Board. A 1994 survey even found that music majors, as a group, had the highest acceptance rate to medical school.

Long-term success: Students with music training tend to rank higher in common measures of long-term success such as educational attainment and income: a 2007 poll by Harris Interactive found that nearly nine out of ten people with post -graduate education had participated in music while in school, and 83 percent of those with incomes of $150,000 or more had had music education. The College Board's 2006 study also found that high school students who participated in band or orchestra reported the lowest lifetime and current use of drugs and alcohol.

Bringing music back to schools

Marion Atherton efforts to integrate music into the early grades at her child's school were ultimately successful. She applied and received a grant from the California Arts Council to bring in a music teacher for regular instruction. The schools' teachers who would be adding music to their classrooms initially were wary. After all, already they had more lesson plans and requirements than they could cover in a given school day.

But, like Atherton, they came to see that music was not an "extra" activity, but one that was integral to education in general.

"The teachers were a little resistant at first," Atherton recalls, "but over time they actually became hugely supportive of it. They saw how it gave certain kids a confidence or a joy they didn't see in other ways. And it was a great way for a classroom to feel a sense of community — and that carried over into the other things their classroom did."
 

Rob Baedeker is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif. He is the coauthor, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: Weddings of the Times and Obama's BlackBerry.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/11/2012:
"While I support music education, I must deplore the lack of scholarship in this article--particularly from a site that deals with education. Not only are correlation and causation misleadingly conflated by the author, attempts at serious follow up on the studies cited here are generally fruitless. This is nothing more than a blog post with a nice lay out, masquerading as academic. Sorry to say this is the standard for GreatSchools articles. Get with it. "
08/18/2011:
"We have great music programs districtwide here in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and I am so proud to teach MUSIC!! We teach the "whole" child!! I love what I do!! "
03/1/2011:
"I did have my child start in pre-K with piano later she chose violin and then lost interest when her father instead of letting his daughter sit and give his parents a small demonstration of how well she was doing, he sat down instead to show his parents how well he was still doing playing the piano... My daughter never wanted to play again... Now in 8th grade I want her to take piano again or what ever she prefers, but, how do I insist on this with-out the drama of 'I can't'? Her grades were better then especially in math. Now, not so much because of the lack of interest and self confidence... What can I do to turn this around for my daughter?"
02/28/2011:
" With all the papers and proof we write and prove that that music is a serious indicator that the Brain is engaged and motivate everyone to a degree. But our system just does not want to allow Music in the classroom and funding as a requirement. I am on a life-long journey to help prove this! Please people let music and the creative arts become a standard requirement in the classrooms, because it also allows the youth and children to exercise leadership and motivational engagement. In other words music promote wellness and awareness when used for gathering and presenting information. Can others out there please help us Teachers across the country lobby for understanding the Howard Gardner's Methods "
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