To many people, music is simply a tool for relaxation, distraction, focus, or fun. To parents, it’s often just another after-school activity that keeps their child busy. But what many people don’t realize is that, if utilized correctly, music can literally change the human brain both physically and cognitively. Scientists in areas like neuroscience and cognitive psychology are pouring out research that shows the quantifiable and beneficial effects of music on things like language, memory, attention, problem solving, and more.
When should your child start engaging in music? The sooner the better! A child’s brain goes through the greatest period of growth and has the greatest neural plasticity during the first three years of life. This means that children have great capacities to learn and absorb new information when very young. So if you want your child to gain the benefits of music, it’s never too soon to start.
Why Music Affects the Brain
Music is a complex, multisensory stimulus. What does that mean? It has a lot of parts to it (rhythm, tempo, pitch, etc.) and almost all senses are needed to engage in it. For this reason, multiple components of the brain need to be activated in order to process it. fMRI scans have shown activity in areas of the brain such as the cerebellum and basal ganglia (involved in behavioral responses) and the orbitofrontal cortex (involved in emotional processing) when listening to music. Many, many other areas are also activated when someone is actively engaging in or moving to music.
Because music is so complex, it engages both hemispheres of the brain. As such, scientists have discovered that musicians actually have a larger corpus callosum (a part of the brain that connects both hemispheres) than non-musicians. This stronger connection can lead to the greater problem-solving, language, and memory skills previously mentioned. In one study, musicians were shown to have better verbal memory than non-musicians. More on this in the next section.
The Benefits of Music
Music can increase brain development and neural activity. What does this mean for your child? Lots of great things!
- Increased memory: Studies show music can promote retention and faster retrieval of memories.
- Better coordination: Because music, especially playing an instrument, requires so many areas of the brain, it has been shown to improve motor skills. In fact, if someone suffers any kind of motor-impairing illness, such as Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, or a stroke, music is often utilized to facilitate movement.
- Improved spatial intelligence: Spatial intelligence is essentially the ability “visually think” — see something that isn’t actually there. This skill is very useful in areas like construction or navigation. Research has suggested that musical experience may help develop this important skill.
- Improved language skills: Nursery rhymes are especially good at this. When listening to music, children are exposed to many important aspects of speech/language like rhythm, inflection, vowel sounds, and more. Not only that, but there is an overlap in areas of the brain that process speech and music.
What Can Parents Do Musically For Their Child?
If you have a young child (0-5 years), get them in a developmental music class. These sorts of programs are specifically designed to nurture learning and brain development. Or you can locate a music therapist nearest to you.
If you have an older child (5 and up), try to find some kind of music camp or club for them to join. Music lessons are also an option, but I personally think some kind of music activity would be a better idea. I spent four years teaching in private music schools, and so many of my students did not enjoy private lessons. If you want your child to get the benefits from music, they need to enjoy the music activity. So whatever musical experience you decide to put your child in, make sure they like it and/or are willing to practice.