Emily Buckley, editor-in-chief 

The options of things you can enroll your child in are endless. Between dance or soccer and scouts or robotics club, your school-age child’s schedule is overflowing. If you are on the fence about wanting to add music lessons to the mix, you may want to consider the strong benefits that experts say come with signing your little one up for guitar or piano lessons. He may not become the next Mozart, but she may actually have an easier time learning math, practicing patience and becoming a team member.

Teachers have long observed the benefits that music education can have on students, but recent research is showing just how impactful learning music can be on a child’s development.

Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanners, neuroscientists have made breakthroughs in understanding how music affects the brain by monitoring musical experiences in real time.

“When people are hooked up to these machines, tasks such as reading or doing math problems each have corresponding areas of the brain where activity can be observed. However, when researchers got participants to listen to music, they saw fireworks,” said Anita Collins, PhD, an award-winning educator and researcher in the area of music education. “It turns out that while listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout.”

Music therapist Heather Overly, MT-BC, has observed the same thing. “With my own kids and students, music education improves their critical thinking skills in all areas,” she said. “They hit challenges in music. Their music studies get hard, just like math gets hard. But they learn that if they keep working it gets better. It does take practice and time, but it gives them an edge in school and in life.”

Dr. Collins went on to explain that playing music has also been found to increase the volume and activity in the brain’s corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres, allowing messages to get across the brain faster and through more diverse routes.

“This may allow musicians to solve problems more effectively and creatively, in both academic and social settings,” Dr. Collins said. “Because making music also involves crafting and understanding its emotional content and message, musicians often have higher levels of executive function.”

Further, Heather says that music education gives kids a way to express themselves in a world where so much of our technical communication doesn’t leave room for emotion outside of emojis. “Kids can let emotions out musically and then have an easier time talking about them,” Heather said.

Most experts agree that children who study music may benefit in the following ways:
  • It improves academic skills. Music and math are highly  intertwined. By understanding beat, rhythm, and scales, children are learning how to divide, create fractions, and recognize patterns. It seems that music wires a child’s brain to help him better understand other areas of math. As students grow they’ll start calling on their short- and long-term memory to recite songs.
  • It develops physical skills. Certain instruments, such as percussion, help children develop coordination and motor skills; they require movement of the hands, arms and feet. Kids with high energy may especially benefit from playing percussion instruments. String and keyboard instruments, like the violin and piano, demand different actions from your right and left hands simultaneously. Enhancing coordination and perfecting timing can prepare children for other hobbies, like dance and sports.
  • It refines discipline and patience. Learning an instrument teaches children about delayed gratification. Many instruments have a steep learning curve. Playing an instrument teaches kids to persevere through hours, months and sometimes years of practice before they reach specific goals.
  • It boosts self-esteem. Lessons offer a forum where children can learn to accept and give constructive criticism. Turning negative feedback into positive change helps build self-confidence. Whether you plan to become a professional musician or not, presenting yourself in public is an important skill that music education helps develop.