Are piano or guitar lessons, Suzuki violin, or seventh-grade band worth the cost and bother? After all, it’s no fun to nag a kid to practice. Then there’s driving to lessons, hauling around instruments. Not to mention listening to scales! Recitals!
On the other hand…
Here’s real music to parents’ ears: Childhood music training shapes kids’ lives in some pretty unexpected and cool ways, a symphony of research tells us.
And that seems true regardless of age or talent level.
Don’t sign up for music lessons in hopes of a future seat at the Grammy’s. Do it for…
1. A happier baby (yes, really)
Good things can grow out of a music education starting darn early. One-year-olds who participate in weekly interactive music classes (with their parents) smile more and communicate better, found a 2012 McMaster University study. They pointed at things out of reach and waved bye-bye earlier than a group of babies who didn’t take classes. And they were easier to soothe too.
It wasn’t simply exposure to music that brought these social advances, though. Both sets of parents played music at home. The interactive activities that happened during the lessons are what made the difference, the researchers said.
There’s no one perfect age to begin music training. As long as the format is fun for a toddler or preschooler, there’s little downside, experts say. Some music educators pick ages 3 to 5 as a good window for starting more formal lessons (not to master an instrument but to be introduced to basics like identifying a beat and a melody or what different instruments sound like).
2. A future STEM career
What do the words music, science, technology, engineering, and math have in common? Music turns out to be a great foundational base note (bass note?!) for STEM fields.
Learning an instrument develops a wide range of skills that are complementary to STEM learning, from reasoning and spatial thinking to collaboration and creative thinking.
Maybe no surprise that 93 percent of STEM graduates from Michigan Technological University during the 1990s had music training in childhood, compared to just 34 percent of average adults. Scientists who win Nobel Prizes are much more likely to be musicians too.
The power of this connection is why you can expect to hear more about STEAM curriculums—adding an A for “arts” in recognition of this important relationship.
First a caution: No promises that your kid will listen to YOU any better after studying music. But many studies have shown that playing music actually changes the brain to make it more sensitive to speech sounds. Kids become better able to detect very subtle differences between sounds that non-musicians can’t. That makes them not only able to hear music better but to hear and process language better too. This has been shown to enhance literacy skills, like reading and verbal memory.
Even if your kid eventually quits the oboe, she wins. Just five years of music training makes kids better listeners in later life, say Northwestern University researchers. Some studies have put that amount of time even lower, at just 15 months of music training.
The cool part: It may never be too late to start. Even when music training begins as late as high school, these kids are better able to process sound and, in turn, see improved language skills, according to other Northwestern research.
4. Better SAT scores
Some studies give an edge to students who attend music or singing classes during elementary and middle school when they later take standarized tests, like the SAT or ACT. One example: Kids who participated in music scored an average 31 points above average in reading, 23 points above average in math, and 31 points above average in writing, according to College Board data.
This effect is just the capper to general academic benefits that kids seem to get from playing musical instruments. One big reason: Executive function—considered to be an important predictor of academic achievement, maybe more than IQ—was shown to be improved in kids with musical training in a 2014 study.
5. Less anxiety, better self esteem
Music is relaxing. It’s escapism. And once you’ve mastered enough basics to start producing sounds that, well, sound like something, playing gets fun. Beyond all this, though, researchers have been able to look inside kids’ brains to actually see the origins of emotional growth.
The more kids train on an instrument, the better the effect on the cortex, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety management and emotional control, found one of the largest studies of playing an instrument on brain development in 2015. A team at the University of Vermont College of Medicine reviewed MRI scans of more than 200 6- to 18-year-old musicians.
Sounding better all the time
And then there’s this chord worth striking: Having a kid who plays music adds to the soundtrack of your family life. Over time, we’ll all remember those practices and rehearsals, concerts and recitals, impromptu jams, and garage bands.
Not least, hearing that first full song—whether it’s on a recorder or a grand piano—is a pretty great feeling.