by Heidi Green
September 20, 2012
“I want to make good citizens,” Shin’ichi Suzuki, Japanese violinist and pioneer of the Suzuki method of violin instruction, famously said. “If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”
It turns out that the metaphorical heart may not be the only part to benefit. A recent study suggests that, in the process of learning to play a musical instrument, children experience changes in the brain that strengthen a range of auditory skills—and that these sharpened skills may last a long time.
How music is good for the brain
A team of researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois recorded electrical responses of college students’ brains in response to a series of complex sounds. The results suggest that those who have had musical training “have a specialized neural system for processing sight and sound in the brainstem, the neural gateway to the brain” that their peers, without musical training, lacked. Although the brainstem has long been thought to be relatively unchangeable, this and similar studies conducted at Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory under the guidance of Professor Nina Kraus indicate that the process of learning music “fundamentally shapes” this area of the brain.
“To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections,” Kraus explains in a recent New York Times article. “Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”
These abilities translate to other areas of children’s learning: reading, writing, and communicating. Music has been accepted as supporting math education for years; now, it seems the benefits can be felt in the language arts, as well.
Just don’t go dusting off those “Baby Einstein” videos—this research in no way suggests that passive listening develops auditory skills or brain function. (Sorry, Baby Einstein. You’re still in the doghouse.)
Similarly, don’t expect “Little Einsteins” to make your child a better listener, or a more skilled musician—even if it does bill itself as a sort of cartoon music education program. The show’s best defense isn’t that it develops musical skills, but that it stimulates children’s curiosity and interest in making music.
What you might consider doing instead is advocating for music education, from the preschool level on up. Thousands of years have passed since ancient Greek philosopher Plato recognized the importance of music education: “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy. But most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” Yet the message isn’t always coming through, as demonstrated by the removal of music education from schools across the country.
According to Kraus and Chandrasekaran, who co-authored the recent study, the findings of their research make a powerful argument for music education and its benefits to brain growth and development. More research is needed to understand the connection between music, the brain, and learning, but data suggest that musical training in schools should be reassessed and encouraged.
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