By Jennifer VanBuren
In the live music capital of the world, music education is not a hard sell. Music enriches our quality of life, but it can also have a positive impact on cognitive abilities, intelligence and reasoning, the ability to focus and improve our chance for academic and social success.
Music training “tones the brain for auditory fitness”much like physical exercise impacts body fitness, according to Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran, of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, who published their findings in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (“Music Training for the Development of Auditory Skills,”August 2010). Their study indicates that skills developed by music training, such as processing pitch, timing and timbre, transfer to cognitive skills needed for speech and language.
Musical training increases our brain’s ability to filter background noise and focus in on a specific sound, such as your friend’s voice in a noisy room. It also trains the brain to focus on the part of a sound that carries the most critical information, like the tone in an infant’s cry. These skills impact student achievement “by improving learning skills and listening ability, especially in challenging listening environments,”say Kraus and Chandrasekaran.
When playing music, a person has to adjust tempo, tone, rhythm and feeling, so the brain has to organize and carry out many activities simultaneously. John J. Ratey, in his book “A User’s Guide to the Brain,”states that “dedicated practice of this orchestration can have a great payoff for lifelong attention skills, intelligence and an ability for self-knowledge and expression.”Skills learned through the discipline of music can transfer to improved study skills, communication skills and cognitive abilities.
One study of 237 second grade children used piano keyboard training and newly designed math software to demonstrate improvement in math skills. The group scored 27 percent higher on proportional math and fractions tests than children that used only the math software. (“Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training,”Neurological Research, March 1999.)
In an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data (NELS:88, National Education Longitudinal Survey), researchers found that students who report consistent, high levels of involvement in instrumental music during middle and high school show “significantly higher levels of mathematics proficiency by grade 12.”This observation holds regardless of students’ socio-economic status, and differences in those who are involved with instrumental music vs. those who are not is more significant over time. (CA: The Imagination Project at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, 1999.)
How does music education affect mathematical skill? Spatial temporal reasoning is the ability to visualize spatial patterns and be able to mentally manipulate them in a time-ordered sequence. For example, a student with developed spatial-temporal reasoning skills could look at an abstract painting and visualize the individual shapes and colors and determine how the artist created the painting. These skills are important in analyzing and understanding mathematical processes. Researchers have found that young children, when given music instruction, scored significantly higher on spatial-temporal reasoning tests.
The benefits of music education go far beyond elementary school. A study by The College Entrance Examination Board indicated that students with experience in music performance and music appreciation scored 57 points higher in the verbal and 41 points higher in the math portions in the SAT (“College-Bound Seniors National Report: Profile of SAT Program Test Takers,”2001). If that was not enough to erase any doubt, the Texas Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse reported that students who participated in band or orchestra had the lowest lifetime and current use of alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse (“Texas school survey of substance use among students: grades 7-12,”2000).
Parents do not need to rush out and enroll their preschool children in private piano lessons or force hours of violin practice on an unwilling teenager in order to benefit from the positive impact of music education. Music education has benefits in many forms and can be incorporated into a family’s daily routine.
During the school year, most elementary-level students have music classes as well as exposure to music and movement elsewhere in the curriculum. In middle and high school, students can join choir, orchestra or band. In the summer, parents take on the responsibility of continuing the musical experiences. While private piano lessons, camps and mom-and-me music classes are effective ways to bring music into a child’s life, these resources can be expensive and can put stress on the family schedule. Parents can expose their children to the benefits of music education without breaking the bank with some simple and inexpensive musical opportunities.
Check out the CD section of your local library. You will find children’s CDs that are often accompanied by books, games or finger-plays.
Tap into the local music scene. From children’s concerts in a coffee house, a symphony in the park or free music lessons at your local grocery store, you can find music in our community every day. There are free music and dance classes at local bookstores, children’s singers performing in libraries and barn dancing at recreation centers.
Get active! Get a ball and bounce to a rhythm. Play follow-the-leader with rhythms patted out on knees, clapping and stomping. Move the furniture to the walls and have a family room dance party.
Get creative. Make personalized instruments with paper plates, dry rice, glue and glitter. Fill empty oatmeal canisters with beans and stretch rubber bands across a shoebox, and you have the beginnings of a kitchen band.
Time travel. If your child has an interest in a specific period of history, do some research and listen to the music of the period. With the power of the Internet, you can find everything from Gregorian Chants to Rock and Roll.
Expose your family to world music. Practice identifying music by the culture or region in which it was created. Try to, for example, differentiate Jamaican steel drums from the rhythms of Sub-Saharan African percussion. Make it a game. Play an Irish Jig, a Hindi film (Bollywood) song and some salsa music and have your kids guess the origin of these songs.
Explore one of the many Internet-based music stations available. Create a station that plays music related to a composer such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Gershwin.
People of all ages, from infants to the elderly, benefit from having music in their lives. We are fortunate to live in a city with a rich musical heritage, where you can hear live music in the airport, coffee shop and even the street corners. Make the most of the opportunities to build those brains over the summer!