Why take music lessons?

Okay, full disclosure, we’re, um, a bit biased.

This post will probably get longer and longer, partly because more and more research supports the benefits of playing a musical instrument, and partly because I’m a big fan.  The short version:  Learning an instrument is awesome, supports all kinds of brain development, and Einstein played the violin.  So there.  Science.

More and more music programs are being taken out of schools these days, and even the best school music programs can’t provide the one-on-one instruction that is so beneficial for individual learning styles. If your child is taking music lessons you probably already see the benefits, but just in case you need one more reason (or you got stuck in traffic on the way to lesson and need some cheer-leading), check out the following, which is of course by no means an exhaustive list:

An article from Lifehacker on learning a new skill (I tried to stay super specific, this article as the exception, because there’s just SO much work on how great specifically learning music is)!

Playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brainstem’s sensitivity to speech sounds. This relates to encoding skills involved with music and language. Experience with music at a young age can “fine-tune” the brains auditory system.
Nature Neuroscience, April 2007

Results From The Elementary School Study

  • Students in top-quality music programs scored 22% better in English and 20% better in mathematics than students in deficient music programs.
  • These academic differences were fairly consistent across geographic regions.
  • Students at the four elementary schools with high-quality music programs scored better than students participating in programs considered to be of lower quality.

Results From The Middle Schools Study

  • Students in top-quality instrumental programs scored 19% higher in English than students in schools without a music program, and 32% higher in English than students in a deficient choral program.
  • Students in top-quality instrumental programs scored 17% higher in mathematics than children in schools without a music program, and 33% higher in mathematics than students in a deficient choral program.
  • Students at schools with excellent music programs had higher English test scores across the country thanstudents in schools with low-quality music programs; this was also true when considering mathematics.
  • Students in all regions with lower-quality instrumental programs scored higher in English and mathematics than students who had no music at all.

— Journal for Research in Music Education, June 2007; Dr. Christopher Johnson, Jenny Memmott

Young Children who take music lessons show different brain development and improved memory over the course of a year, compared to children who do not receive musical training. Musically trained children performed better in a memory test that is correlated with general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics, and IQ.
— Dr. Laurel Trainor, Prof. of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behavior at McMaster University, 2006

Stanford University research has found for the first time that musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word, a finding that researchers say could lead to improving the reading ability of children who have dyslexia and other reading problems… ‘Especially for children … who aren’t good at rapid auditory processing and are high-risk for becoming poor readers, they may especially benefit from musical training.’
— From “Playing music can be good for your brain,” SF Chronicle, November 17, 2005 (article on recent Stanford research study linking music and language)

The musician is constantly adjusting decisions on tempo, tone, style, rhythm, phrasing, and feeling – training the brain to become incredibly good at organizing and conducting numerous activities at once. Dedicated practice of this orchestration can have a great payoff for lifelong attention skills, intelligence, and an ability for self-knowledge and expression.
— From A User’s Guide to the Brain, May 31, 2003; Ratey, John J., MD

Learning and performing music actually exercise the brain – not merely by developing specific music skills, but also by strengthening the synapses between brain cells…What is important is not how well a student plays but rather the simultaneous engagement of senses, muscles, and intellect. Brain scans taken during musical performances show that virtually the entire cerebral cortex is active while musicians are playing. Can you think of better exercise for the mind/brain? In short, making music actively engages the brain synapses, and there is good reason to believe that it increases the brain’s capacity by increasing the strengths of connections among neurons.
— From “The Music in Our Minds,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 56, #3; Norman M. Weinberger

Music enhances the process of learning. The systems it nourishes, which include our integrated sensory, attention, cognitive, emotional and motor capacities, are shown to be the driving forces behind all other learning.
— From Empathy, Arts and Social Studies, 2000; Konrad, R.R.

Researchers at the University of Munster in Germany reported their discovery that music lessons in childhood actually enlarge the brain. An area used to analyze the pitch of a musical note is enlarged 25% in musicians, compared to people who have never played an instrument. The findings suggest the area is enlarged through practice and experience. The earlier the musicians were when they started musical training, the bigger this area of the brain appears to be.
— From Nature, April 23, 1998; Christian Pantev, et al

Nowhere in the spectrum of arts learning effects on cognitive functioning are impacts more clear than in the rich archive of studies, many very recent, that show connections between music learning or musical experiences and fundamental cognitive capability called special reasoning. Music listening, learning to play piano and keyboards, and learning piano and voice all contribute to spatial reasoning…In the vast literature on spatial reasoning (about 3,000 studies in some bibliographies), it is clear that mathematical skills as well as language facility benefit directly from spatial reasoning.
— From James S. Catterall, UCLA, Fall 1997

Nearly 100% of past winners in the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology (for high School students) play one or more musical instruments. This led the Siemens Foundation to host a recital at Carnegie Hall in 2004, featuring some of these young people. After which a panel of experts debated the nature of the apparent science/music link.
— The Midland Chemist (American Chemical Society) Vol. 42, No.1, Feb. 2005

Dr. James Catterall of UCLA has analyzed the school records of 25,000 students as they moved from grade 8 to grade 10. He found that students who studied music and the arts had higher grades, scored better on standardized tests, had better attendance records and were more active in community affairs than other students. He also found that students from poorer families who studied the arts improved overall school performance more rapidly than all other students.
— From Catterall, UCLA, Fall 1997

Second graders from a low income school in Los Angeles were given eight months of piano keyboard training, as well as time playing with newly designed music software. The result? These students, taking the Stanford 9 Math Test, went from scoring in the 30th to the 65th percentile. These second graders were performing sixth grade math. The critical point here is the students were not taught math using music…they were taught music. It was the process of learning music that helped improve their math skills.
—From Neurological Research, March 15, 1999

Students of lower socioeconomic status who took music lessons in grades 8–12 increased their math scores significantly as compared to non-music students. But just as important, reading, history, geography and even social skills soared by 40%.
—From Nature, May 23, 1996; Gardiner, Fox, Jeffrey and Knowles

Learning in the arts nurtures motivation, including active engagement, disciplined and sustained attention, persistence and risk taking. It also increases attendance and educational aspirations.
— From Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, Arts Education Partnership, 2002

Arts participation and SAT scores co-vary—that is, they tend to increase linearly: the more arts classes, the higher the scores. This relationship is illustrated in the 2005 results shown below. Notably, students who took four years of arts coursework outperformed their peers who had one half-year or less of arts coursework by 58 points on the verbal portion and 38 points on the math portion of the SAT.

4+ Years of Arts 534 540
4 Years 543 541
3 Years 514 516
2 Years 508 517
1 Year 501 515
1/2 Year 485 502
Average for All SAT Test Takers 508 520

— Source: 2005 College-Bound Seniors: Total Group Profile Report, The College Board, 2005

Students of music continue to outperform their non-arts peers on the SAT, according to reports by the College Entrance Examination Board. In 2006, SAT takers with coursework/experience in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 43 points higher on her math portion than students with no coursework or experience in the arts. Scores for those with coursework in music appreciation were 62 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math portion.
— The College Board, Profile of College-Bound Seniors National Report for 2006