Academic benefits of learning a musical instrument for young children.



As a musician and music teacher, in a society where councils are faced with budget cuts, and in a time of political and economical change, I feel I have found myself regularly fighting for music and the arts importance in the role of children’s education. I have been so frustrated in the last few years at proposed cuts to council’s instrumental services as well as a coming across a reoccurring view from some parents that learning music is ‘just’ a hobby with no real academic benefit. (Rant over. I promise)

So, parents, guardians and educators – want your children to have improved academic ability, strong social skills and increased sense of health and wellbeing? Of course you do! Well these are just some of the benefits that learning a musical instrument can have. There is strong research to support a link between children’s participation in musical education and improved academic ability.

I am going to outline a few reasons that parents should consider supporting music lessons as a great way your child to have fun and enjoyment and also build up essential skills that will transfer into their academics. It’s a win win ! (like hiding sneaky vegetables in your child’s favorite meal) For those academic’s amongst you – apologies for the lack of a formal reading list but please feel free to follow the links to all studies and articles that I have included throughout this blog.


Increase IQ

I do not want to start a debate on ‘fixed’ vs ‘variable’ intelligence but there has been some studies to support the notion that instrumental lessons can increase IQ. In a study of children receiving musical tuition on keyboard or voice compared against a group of children with no music input, there was a slight overall increase in IQ. (Link). This seems to be more effective in younger children in the early years of education.


Build Transferable Skills

Skills and practices developed when learning an instrument have a direct influence on brain development as well as having influence on approach to non-musical tasks. (Link) An example of this is learning how to learn. It is impossible to learn an instrument without making mistakes and if a child learns early enough that making mistakes is an essential and positive part of learning and then it can really help them with similar situations that they will experience in the classroom. Also, one of the main things pupils learn in the first lesson is how much a little time and practice can improve their ability. It can reinforce that repetition and practice = results. Instrumental lessons can help teach your child to over come difficulties they come across by teaching practice and study techniques. It promotes resilience, perseverance and determination and can provide a sense of achievement when the see the hard work paying off. In my experience, in a world of instant success and results through video games and computers this is a skill that children of today are lacking.


Increased Literacy and Language Skills


A study has shown that uptake of music lessons as a correlation with increased spelling ability (Link). Also, it is thought that because of the extent of auditory processing required to learn an a musical instrument, children with musical training have increased ability to distinguish subtleties in speech which in turn improves understanding and interpretation of speech as well as reading skills. (Link)



Increased Spatial Reasoning


Spatial Reasoning is described as the ability to visualize three-dimensional things in your mind, mentally manipulate images, and perceive patterns between them. This is a skill we use everyday and is an essential skill for problem solving and mathematics. (Link) There are many studies supporting improved spatial reasoning skills in children who have undertaken musical training and this is recognised as a skill that can be developed in the early years through music. (Link)


Mathematics


There is a plethora of research looking at the links of mathematics with music (Link). Although engagement with music is not going to make you a mathematical genius, it will help with the basic mathematical principles. Music is full of harmonic and rhythmic sequences and patterns. Rhythmic training, particularly in early musical stages, develops a physical understanding of pulse and subdivision of beats. Children are learning to count, subdivide and create their own rhythmical patterns.


Things to consider


A key message from researching the links with academic ability and musical education is for maximum gain, start music education early. The longer and more frequent the musical experience is the greater the impact. A study has shown music lessons for children aged 5 can have a huge impact early language development including reading ability (Link).


In the past I have deliberately avoided teaching one to one lessons to children under the age of 7 as I thought that by this point, they had the language and mathematical understanding to cope with notation reading as well being familiar with formal teaching through attendance at school. It is clear from research however, that we should be providing younger children with the opportunity to learn music early to support language and mathematical skills. Why wait till someone else has done the hard bit – maybe I can help? I have recently started teaching piano lessons from the age of 5, and it is has been extremely rewarding to watch them develop so quickly – both musically and academically. Although it can be more challenging, I encourage all instrumental teachers to consider how you could adapt your lessons to suit the younger student. Of course there are some instruments that simply cannot be taught as young as this due to the physical demands. In my piano lessons, I use singing, rhythm games and rhymes to help build basic musicianship skills as well as start to introduce notation, fingering and improvisation. (I will share some resources I have found useful in future posts). It does require more effort and creative thinking when designing lesson plans than teaching an older child but I promise you the benefits are worth it!



Another key message that I have taken from research is that the more frequent the music lessons are – the stronger the link to improvement in academics. Studies with shorter music lessons (over a few weeks or months and then nothing) have little impact. However, long term and frequent lessons 1 once a week or more for a number of years, can have a significant and long lasting impact on transferable active skills. Again, I have always offered lessons on a weekly basis and never considered that I should offer parents the option of teaching their child twice a week or more. If budget allows and the child is keen then research supports the benefits of frequent lessons.

So parents, if your child shows an interest in music – encourage and support learning an instrument. It may pay off in years to come as they develop skills and qualities that give them the best chance to succeed in any learning environment.

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