Sure, hearing your child languish away while doing their best attempt to tickle the ivories – that is, play the piano – can be a rough experience for both a parent and their aspiring musician. But, there is compelling evidence that music can have a powerful impact on brain development in children. Recent research seems to lay out a brilliant argument to support the family budget for guitar lessons – and indeed, lay out a case for increased public funding for the arts.

How does the budding musician’s brain develop?

Over two decades of scientific evidence suggests that music can have a profound impact on a child’s brain development. Playing music requires several systems to work seamlessly together. These include the:

  • auditory system: responsible for the sense of hearing
  • somatosensory system: responsible for the sense of touch, pressure, pain and more
  • visual system: responsible for the sense of sight

These systems must interact with a number of additional systems:

  • motor system: responsible for the skills and abilities required to move
  • executive system: the brain’s so-called management system, which sets goals, plans and more
  • affective system: responsible for the brain’s emotional responsiveness

The combination of these systems working together is thought to have an impact on the development, maintenance and function of your child’s growing and changing brain structures.

How different are the brains of children who play an instrument?

One study compared three groups of children: one involved in learning musical instruments; one involved in sports; and another not enrolled in any after-school training. After two years of training, children in the music group had better performance than the two other groups in musically-relevant auditory skills. Examples of these skills include:

  • being able to discriminate pitch
  • recognise an unfamiliar melody
  • detect whether a sequence of chords ends correctly

For non-musical skills, children with music training performed differently (with more “neural activation” or brain activity) on one cognitive task. This study concluded that music training induces both brain and behavioural changes in children – and that these are not innate, but learned.

Another study found that music training can actually change the trajectory of a child’s brain structure. Before picking up an instrument, there were no pre-existing structural differences between musicians and non-musicians. Two years later, the children that played music showed a different rate of maturation in a part of the brain called the superior temporal gyrus as well as changes in the corpus callosum.

  • Superior temporal gyrus: a part of the brain that contains the auditory cortex and plays a role in processing sound
  • Corpus callosum: a region of the brain that connects the motor, sensory and cognitive functions on one hemisphere or side of the brain to the other

Can musical instruments help children develop their motor skills?

Carrying that bass case to school? Trying to fingerpick a guitar while balancing it on a strap? The ways that music can help foster and refine both gross motor and fine motor skills are numerous, and the types of skills that are nurtured do vary from instrument to instrument. Yet all musical instruments do demand different levels of balance, coordination and fine and gross motor skills.

What can music do for at-risk children?

Evidence shows us that music and musical activity can provide benefits from as early as infancy – not just early childhood. Some research has shown that it appears to support auditory (hearing or listening) and language skills in infants that have inherited conditions, like dyslexia, or environmental factors, like premature birth.

Examples of musical activities during infancy can include interactions like:

  • singing songs or lullabies
  • rhythmic movements, like clapping hands to a nursery rhyme; or bouncing and rocking children in time with music
  • using parentese or baby-talk, which is rich in musical features, like exaggerated pitch changes

Though simple, these interactions have an important role in a child’s development. Even the exaggerated and melodic cues in parentese help infants in discriminating between words. Singing songs together, as any parents can attest to, can often do wonders for winning over a child’s attention and help them to synchronise their emotions with those of their caregiver.

Note that it’s important to help children actually make this music. An active music-making class compared with hearing recorded music had a profoundly more impactful effect on children.

What role does music therapy play?

For children with behavioral problems or disorders, developmental disorders or a combination of these, music may prove to be very beneficial. Music has been shown to have an impact on a variety of childhood conditions, including:

  • reducing aggression and hostility
  • reducing motor activities and increasing on-task behavior
  • improving social functioning
  • increasing attention and motivation
  • improving the beliefs held about oneself
  • improving symptoms and quality of life

The use of music therapy to improve outcomes in children exhibiting aggressive behaviors; ADHD; general emotional and behavioral disorders; autism; intellectual or learning disabilities; substance abuse; mood and anxiety disorders; and eating disorders, is well-documented.

What’s the best way of introducing children to music?

Technically, there’s no minimum age a child needs to be in order to pick up an instrument for the first time. However, most music teachers tend not to begin lessons until age five. The window between age five and nine is probably the most critical in helping to form the underlying foundations necessary for musicianship later in life.

In many cases, note that a child may be willing and eager to start playing a new instrument – but may not actually be physically capable of exploring the instrument’s capabilities so early in life. Examples include not having enough lung capacity to play wind instruments; or lacking dexterity in the fingers because fine motor skills have not been refined to the point where they are useful!

There are ways to explore and enjoy music together as a family to set a child on the path to picking up an instrument, like playing music regularly in the house; enquiring about your chid’s own tastes; and attend age-appropriate group music classes for babies and toddlers if your child is still young.

References

Habibi, A., Damasio, A., Ilari, B., Elliott Sachs, M. and Damasio, H. (2018). Music training and child development: a review of recent findings from a longitudinal study. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1423(1), pp.73-81.

Virtala, P. and Partanen, E. (2018). Can very early music interventions promote at-risk infants’ development?. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1423(1), pp.92-101.

Habibi, A., Damasio, A., Ilari, B., Veiga, R., Joshi, A., Leahy, R., Haldar, J., Varadarajan, D., Bhushan, C. and Damasio, H. (2017). Childhood Music Training Induces Change in Micro and Macroscopic Brain Structure: Results from a Longitudinal Study. Cerebral Cortex, 28(12), pp.4336-4347.

Robb, S. (2003). Designing Music Therapy Interventions for Hospitalized Children and Adolescents Using a Contextual Support Model of Music Therapy. Music Therapy Perspectives, 21(1), pp.27-40.