3 reasons for music eduction

Many adults remember music lessons - some fondly, some not-so-much. But there’s an enormous amount of evidence about the beneficial effects of music training in kids. Some lines of evidence point to how the benefits of musical education can spill over into other areas of life, improving how one’s brain functions, the ability to learn languages, math abilities, and so on. As a musician, I feel conflicted about this sort of reason for starting music lessons. Music isn’t solely important to kids because it might get them to behave better, get a better SAT score, or get them into Harvard. Music is its own reward. It possesses a beauty and value that can’t be reduced to utilitarian terms. Perhaps parents start kids in music for practical reasons; but it’s best to treat music as just music and let whatever other magic can happen just unfold with time. With that caveat, here are three reasons why music education is critical for kids.

Brain development

The brain undergoes massive development in early childhood.[1] Kids are born with very capable brains; but most of the brain capacity in infants is channeled into its ability to form its own “wiring.” Although the brain weighs about 25% of the average adult weight at birth, by age 3 it has already grown to about 88% of its eventual size. By age 10, the brain is 99% of its eventual maximal weight. The enormous growth in the brain reflects billions of connections being formed between neurons.

A study[2] by Nina Kraus and colleagues at the Northwestern University Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory showed that the beneficial effects of music lessons in childhood were sustained well into adulthood even among adults who hadn’t played their instruments in years. Kraus measured the timing of brain responses to speech in three groups of adults, some with no music training in childhood, some with just a little training, and some with a moderate amount of training. What she showed was that the brains of adults who had experienced musical training in childhood responded faster to speech stimuli than those without. And there appeared to be a dose-response relationship between the amount of musical training and the effect size.

A counterpoint to instant gratification

Everything about contemporary culture is designed for speed. There internet has transformed life in millions of ways, some good, some bad; but we’re all moving faster and faster. Don’t want to wait for a book? Download it on your iPad. Don’t want to wait for your fast food? Order on your phone ahead of time.

But music disobeys the contemporary heuristic that anything can be accomplished faster. Sure, there are more efficient ways to practice.[3] But training the mind, the muscles, the ears, and eyes to work in flawless coordination cannot be hurried. Music teaches us to slow down, accept our imperfections, and to be patient. It situates us in history by linking us to the past and forward to the future.

Shinichi Suzuki, the father of the modern concept of talent education, reframed talent as little more than persistent work. Suzuki observed the effortlessness with which young children acquire their native tongue. With persistence, subtle feedback, and a lot of nurturing, children tacitly master complex sounds and grammars. He began to wonder whether music, another auditory pursuit, could be similarly acquired. Time has proven Suzuki right, of course. But while the concept is enormously empowering, its implications for the size of the task are equally large. It’s really about slow, progressive acquisition of ability.

Above all music training is an adventure in willpower. Although willpower seems like an old-fashioned virtue, there is considerable evidence that willpower - a purposeful exercise of delayed gratification - can predict positive social and intellectual outcomes.[4] Furthermore, we know that developing willpower in one area of life can have benefits in other areas of life.[5]

A point of focus

Americans obsess about self-esteem in children often to their detriment. There is practically no evidence that interventions designed to deliberately boost self-esteem through unearned positive messaging and rewards actually work. Yet they are commonplace. For example, our local community soccer organization gives out medals for participation, presumably to bolster the self-esteem in children who didn’t score any goals or spent a lot of time on the bench. Showing up is not a rewardable event. If you sign-up for something, participation is an expectation. Furthermore, efforts to artificially boost self-esteem in this way have been shown to actually reduce performance.

The problem with trying to manipulate self-esteem is that it is a symptom of something, not a primary entity. If you want people to feel better, then they need to be better and do better.[6] Without attaching an intervention to what really matters, you’re working against strong psychological countercurrents. Instead, I like to think of self-esteem as the byproduct of two orthogonal factors: differentiation and accomplishment. Accomplishment boosts self-esteem by increasing a person’s sense of self-efficacy in the world. Differentiation, on the other hand, allows us to distinguish ourselves from others and adding to our own sense of unique value. The latter is particularly important in teens who struggle with the dichotomy between wanting to belong and wanting to be a unique individual.

What does this have to do with music? We know from Suzuki’s work that talent is just another word for hard work. But I think even that stops a little short of what’s really going on in kids. Instead, talent is found at the intersection of hard work and focus. Without focus, hard work can mean just doing a lot of “stuff.” Since music requires so much of both, the sense of accomplishment can be enormous. The more accomplished the kids become, the more they begin to differentiate themselves from others. This becomes the source of their self-esteem.

Of course, all of these principles operate with other pursuits. But why not music?

  1. https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/dev.html

  2. The Journal of Neuroscience, 6 November 2013, 33(45): 17667-17674; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2560-13.2013 Full text

  3. I was never really taught how to practice. We just practiced for hours. Start at the beginning, go to the end, and repeat. There’s a lot of good material around on how to practice more effectively. For example 10 easy ways to optimize your music practice and others.

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment The famous marshmallow experiment conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford is instructive. Young children who were able to defer eating a marshmallow had better SAT scores, higher level of academic achievement, and better health indices later in life than those who could not resist eating the marshmallow.

  5. In a study recounted in ”Willpower” by Baumeister and Tierney, students who were asked to maintain a good posture performed better on tasks unrelated to posture.

  6. The idea here is similar to that which is encapsulated in a quotation often misattributed to Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The misattribution is a product of Will Durant’s text formatting in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers (1926). His summary of Aristotle’s text is faithful in meaning, though. What Aristotle actually wrote was “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life… for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy” in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.