Brain Training

10th February 2017

A number of scientific studies in recent years have shown the benefits that learning a musical instrument can have on a child’s academic performance and life chances. Parents may be persuaded by the science, but music lessons can be expensive and time consuming. What are the first steps for getting your child started on a musical instrument, what are the pitfalls, and what do parents need to know? Phil Southgate points the way…

successful singer, instrumentalist, lyricist and composer Phillipa Leigh studied at the world-renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, has performed at top venues around the country, including Ronnie Scott’s, and has had her music played on BBC Radio 2 and MTV. But as a school girl in Rickmansworth, her beginnings were not so auspicious.

Like many other talented and intelligent individuals, Phillipa suffers from dyslexia and, for her, life at school was an uphill battle. But when her father was taking piano lessons and she was inspired to begin learning the instrument herself, the experience opened up music and the arts in the broadest sense – leading to an interest in drawing, painting and, more significantly, acting: her eventual ticket into RADA.

The positive impact of music on Phillipa’s life is far from unique to her. Studies have shown that music training seems to strengthen the same neural processes that are often impaired in individuals with developmental dyslexia. The operative word in this is ‘training’, meaning that the age at which your child starts learning, the hours they spend practising and the number of years they stick at it all add up.

But it is not only those with learning difficulties who should consider music lessons, nor are the benefits exclusive to children. There is evidence that playing an instrument induces changes in the brain, improving auditory and motor skills.
“There is a long literature looking at structural and physiological changes in the brain with music training,” explains Dr Nina Kraus, Professor of Neurobiology at Northwestern University in the USA, who is one of the world’s leading researchers into the biology of auditory learning. “Our lab has shown that playing an instrument strengthens sound processing in the brain.”

Perhaps less self-evidently, however, is that with years of training these improvements can percolate to other domains, such as speech, language and emotion – and may benefit academic achievement by improving learning skills and listening ability. Long term studies of school children indicate that music training initiated as late as adolescence can enhance neural processing of sound, and also confer benefits for language skills. Kraus adds, “Under the umbrella of ‘executive function,’ this has been studied quite a bit and there are indeed benefits. We have found strengths in auditory memory and attention.”

More important than any specific choice of instrument is simply getting your child started with a musical instrument at all. According to Dr Kraus, what instrument you play makes no difference in terms of generalised benefits –but there are interesting findings involving changes in the brain. It’s been found that a particular brain landmark was more pronounced on the left side in keyboard players and the right side in string players, for example. “Our lab has shown that pianists and bassoon players, while both showing enhancement in sound processing, also show enhancements specific to their instruments,” says Dr Krauss.

Since music is a transferrable skill, two years of solid progress learning any given instrument – guitar, for example – will yield significant benefits, even for a child who goes on to take up a completely unrelated instrument, such as the trumpet or the drums. This is because the initial challenge for a beginner is understanding how music is organised into rhythm and specific frequencies (notes, say, on a piano) and how squiggles on a page relate to sounds we can hear.

It is easiest to begin with an instrument on which it is possible to produce a musical sound with little or no training. Anyone can strum a ukulele, blow into a recorder or play notes on a piano, whereas instruments such as the clarinet or violin require considerable practice even to blow or bow correctly, without creating unpleasant screeches. A child who has had no introduction to playing music may find the initial investment of time required for a clarinet or violin discouraging. By contrast, a child who has already made progress – even just at singing – will already have the basics of music under their belt, and will tend to perceive learning how to produce a pleasant sound on their new instrument a relatively minor task.

Major examination boards require students to undergo aural tests such as singing back melodies, answering questions after listening to a piece of music and clapping along. These tests can reveal your child’s natural strengths and therefore point the way to which kind of instrument might be most suitable. Children who are particularly strong rhythmically will do well playing the drums and other percussion instruments, while those who are good at recognising pitch will excel at instruments such as the cello, where almost every note has to be found by touch, guided only by the ear.

Traditionally, music lessons focused a little too much on playing and not enough on listening, with the result that learning an instrument was often seen as a technical exercise, rather than an art form to express emotions, delight the intellect and conjure magic. Yet the moment anyone begins the hard task of truly mastering an instrument, the cause of this tendency is easy to understand: the barriers to entry are mostly technical.

An obvious way to square this circle is by taking your child to concerts where they can watch various instruments performed. You can broaden your child’s mind by exposing them to plenty of different styles; the world of music is vast and there are countless instruments and ways of playing them. Different types of music will typically take you to lots of different venues (churches, concert halls, theatres etc) which is fun – and will also have the added benefit of introducing your child to different styles of architecture.

Another useful activity – and easier on the wallet – is simply the choice of music you have on in your house or in the car. If you normally listen to BBC Radio 1, mix it up and stick on Classic FM or Radio 3. The content offered by the likes of YouTube and Spotify is effectively limitless, and without your child even realising it, you can slip in background music that they may remember when they next hear it, months or even years later. These memories will lay the foundations of their musical appreciation, a string to their bow that will be stronger the more different styles you can include (jazz, classical, blues, rock etc.).

Whenever you hear music you can encourage your child to listen actively, by asking them to identify what instruments they can pick out, guess when it was composed and to recognise different styles. Actively listening to music in this way can be inspirational, but before you rush out and invest in a new sound system instead of a musical instrument for your child, bear in mind that the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ is somewhat debunked. “We don’t see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music,” cautions Dr Kraus. “As far as we’ve seen, there has to be active engagement not mere listening.

“It does take time to change the brain. Although I can’t say what the minimum effective ‘dose’ is, we have seen effects in children who trained as little as two to three hours per week. In our school-based studies we saw measurable differences in brain and behaviour after two years of training.”

Giving your child the ability to play a musical instrument isn’t just thousands of hours of enjoyment, but you’ll also be doing a massive favour for their brain and influencing their future. So if you are a parent in two minds about whether to embark on this particular journey, hesitate no more. Get out to your local music shops, book tickets for a concert and reach out to your local teachers, who will be delighted to help your children enjoy the many benefits that learning an instrument can bring. Children learn life skills through play and that’s what musical instruments are for – playing!

For more info on music & the brain, check out the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory website:
Phil Southgate is a piano teacher based in Pinner: 07795 548509

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