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Why music builds better brains


Published on: April 01, 2009

Girl playing fluteYour 6-year-old may never become a concert pianist, but all those hours of practice may help her make beautiful music — in math or language arts classes!

Brainy benefits
Research studies are revealing links between music education and academic performance. According to the July 2006 issue of The Journal of Research in Music Education, third- and fourth-graders in high-quality school music programs scored higher on standardized tests, compared to students in schools with deficient music education programs — 22 percent better in English and 20 percent better in math. Even students with lower-quality instrumental programs scored higher in English and math than students who had no music education at all, the study showed.

“The research suggests that all arts help with reading, with thinking skills, creativity, verbal skills,” says Kathy Morrison, associate superintendent of instructional services for the Mercer Island School District. “The studies back up what I truly believe.”

A 2006 Canadian study of young children indicated that those who take music lessons showed 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 was correlated with general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, mathematics and IQ, according to Dr. Laurel Trainor, professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

A great education
Scott Gelband, who launched Seattle Music Partners after 18 years as a corporate finance lawyer, sees firsthand the effect that music can have on young minds. The nonprofit organization provides after-school music lessons to elementary and middle school students in low-income schools. The program recruits professionals and talented college and high school musicians to tutor the children one on one.

Gelband sees an obvious connection between reading music and understanding math — especially fractions. Half notes and quarter notes “are all subdivisions of the fundamental beat for a given piece,” Gelband says. “In mastering a melody, students need to understand the meter and rhythm, and how they relate to each other. It has to become as natural as drinking water to them.”

Gelband also sees music as a language with syntax and inflection — “component parts that create a song when pieced together, much like the building blocks in reading.

“When you perform a piece, you are using that new voice and sharing it with others,” he says. “It becomes a new platform, a mode of expression, a way to connect with other people. And you get the growing confidence and self-respect that comes with having people listen.”

Leschi Elementary School, where the Seattle Music Partners program originated, was one of five Seattle elementary schools to be named a “School of Distinction” for improved scores on the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) in 2007. Principal Jo Lute-Ervin said her students’ success was due to a number of factors, including the instrumental music program and a strong choral program.

“I think [music education] helps with concentration, and it gives them more discipline so they can concentrate in other areas,” Lute-Ervin says. “I have always been a strong believer in music and the arts in education.”
While Morrison admits it takes a lot of discipline for kids to practice every day, that practice develops work habits that will carry on through life: “tenacity, persistence, setting high expectations for yourself, following through.”

Learning to fail
Those qualities may be the elements of success in life, but Scott Ketron, artistic director for Music Works Northwest in Bellevue, says an excellent music education can teach a student another critical skill — how to fail.

Ketron recalls working with a young student who was trying to master the difficult task of playing the marimba while holding four mallets in his hands. “I know you can’t do this right now,” he told the student. “It’s OK if you can’t do it right now. We’re going to do some exercises to get your hands so they can work.”

Students are under so much pressure to succeed, Ketron says, it’s good for them to learn how to fail.

“Music is learned virtually the same way it was 300 years ago,” he says. “It requires having time alone to work it out, learning to solve problems, learning to accept failure, not as an ultimate goal but as part of the path.”

While practicing a musical instrument can be a lonely undertaking, music also offers a child valuable lessons in teamwork, music educators say. Singing in a chorus or playing in an orchestra or band demonstrates that everyone must do his part to produce a beautiful piece of music.

The best reason
While there is plenty of evidence that music can enhance a child’s academic performance, educators emphasize that the best reason for a music education is the simple joy of music.

“If you do nothing else but give somebody an appreciation of music for life, that is a wonderful gift to give a child,” Morrison says.

Gelband agrees. “What we want to do is help ignite the passion that every kid has for music in a positive way and help them carry it in their lives forever.”

Freelance writer Elaine Bowers lives in Seattle with her husband and twin teenage daughters.


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