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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."

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 readers

"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. "
"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!! "
"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?"
" 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 "