Want to increase your child’s grasp of the many subjects you’re teaching him – reducing frustration in your home school?
Then read on… because multiple studies show that this can improve your child’s intelligence and mental capabilities.
It can raise their IQ, improve their test scores, help them understand math and science concepts more easily, and boost their overall brain power.
Discover the amazing benefits of studying a musical instrument. In a minute, I’ll also discuss which instrument they should learn first and why, and give you a 10-point checklist for finding the best teacher.
8 Reasons to Study a Musical Instrument
1. Improves standardized test scores and proficiency exam scores. Based on a 10-year study involving 25,000 students.[i]
2. Improves SAT scores compared to peers (can translate to scholarship money).[ii]
3. Raises IQ – quite dramatically. Young students completing just nine months of weekly piano or voice training showed IQ improvement of almost three points more than their untrained peers.[iii]
4. Improves ability to understand math and scientific concepts. Piano students performed 34 percent higher on tests measuring proportional reasoning (things like fractions, ratios, proportions, and thinking in space and time…) used in math and science.[iv]
5. Increases scholarships/academic awards, improves grades. Earned more academic honors and awards than their non-musical peers, and more As and Bs on their report cards.[v]
6. Improves chances of admission to medical school. You may not have visions of your child attending medical school, but this is telling. More music majors applying for med school were admitted than students with any other major – even biology, chemistry, and math.[vi]
7. Increases grey matter and neural connections. Music training by age 7 or 8 is linked to more grey matter volume in the sensorimotor cortex, the occipital lobes, and the corpus callosum (which connects the right brain and left brain).[vii] And these effects increase with training intensity.
But is it genes or music study?
You might wonder whether people with more grey matter are predisposed to become musicians.
Most studies suggest that the brains of non-musicians change in response to musical training.
In one study, non-musicians were asked to perform a 5-finger exercise on the piano for 2 hours a day. Within 5 days, they showed evidence of brain re-wiring.[x]
But it’s also true that smarter parents are more likely to enroll their kids in music lessons. And that higher-ability kids are more likely to stick with musical training because they find it rewarding.
To rule out those possibilities, we need controlled experiments where children with no prior training are randomly assigned to groups.
Several such studies were done. Most of them (too many to name here) suggest that piano lessons trump voice lessons, drama lessons, art lessons, or no lessons at all in terms of brain development.
One randomized study showed that economically disadvantaged elementary school students gained enhanced neural speech processing after two years of piano training.[xi]
But there are also two counter-examples.
So where does that leave us?
There are good reasons to believe that serious musical training hones skills needed in other areas of school and life.
I studied piano for 16 years, taught it full-time for 28 years, and also played flute, viola, and guitar, so I can certainly attest to the rigorous demands of music study.
Think these skills learned by studying music might help your child focus when you’re trying to teach them math, science, or grammar?
- Paying attention for long periods of time
- Decoding symbols (notation, staff, and other symbols)
- Translating code into precise motor patterns
- Recognizing and playing patterns of sound across time
- Discerning differences in pitch
- Learning rules of patterns
- Memorizing long passages
- Remembering rhythms and reproducing them
- Understanding ratios, fractions, and more
- Improvising within given rules
It’s reasonable to assume these skills transfer to other areas of life, whether it’s focusing on the home school material you’re trying to teach, taking the SAT exam, or memorizing complex chemical equations…
Long story short… You can’t completely rule out the influence genetics has on musicians’ IQ advantages.
But it also seems clear that music training actively causes brain changes. And music students sharpen many life skills – self-discipline, working memory, and more.
Besides the cognitive benefits, music lessons are also intrinsically rewarding.
Incidentally, almost everyone’s heard about the “Mozart effect.” But there’s very little evidence that passive listening to music conveys much cognitive benefit. If only life were so easy…
Which instrument first?
While there’s value in learning any instrument, piano and violin seem to be the best choices when your child’s starting out.
Several years ago, back when I was teaching piano lessons, a study reported that piano students had more neuronal connections than violin students, presumably because they use both hands on the keyboard at the same time. But I can’t put my hands on that study.
Your child will learn a great deal from either instrument, but it’s worth considering piano, based merely on the fact that he’ll learn to read music on both treble and bass staves. Violin only uses the treble staff.
Piano is a great “first” instrument. You learn all the fundamentals of music symbolism, read both staves, use both hands.
If your child’s already playing violin and loving it, by all means let him continue. You can always add piano later. He’s better off learning one instrument well than none at all.
With solid piano skills, he can easily diversify into other instruments, with a sharply shortened learning curve.
When to start, how long to continue…
Most piano teachers prefer to start students between ages five and seven. And there’s some good science to back up that preference.
A special window of learning occurs between ages six and eight – musical training during this time speeds motor skill development and produces long-term brain changes. The younger a child starts, the greater his brain benefits.
Anyone younger than five (and often even young five-year-olds) is generally too young. Even at five, some students are eager to learn; others just aren’t ready.
How do you know if your child’s ready?
Ask yourself these simple questions:
- Do they know their A, B, Cs?
- Can they count to 10 or 20?
- Can they sit quietly and listen to a story for 15 minutes or longer?
And this one’s for you: are you ready to support your child’s music study by taking them to lessons, supervising their playing, financially investing in it?
If you can answer all these questions in the affirmative, they’re probably ready.
Hint: Do NOT ask your child whether he “wants” to learn an instrument. No one wants to do things that require time and discipline. You’re the parent; if you believe it’s valuable, go for it. If not, don’t. You don’t let your child choose whether to do math, eat vegetables, or brush their teeth.
I suggest you commit to a minimum of three years of lessons. Five years is an even better target, and you’ll get a far better return on your investment.
Best case scenario… start lessons by age six and continue till your child’s 13.
It’s a tough sell to continuing through the teen years, when so many other extracurriculars are competing for attention. (But if you can without World War 3 erupting, go for it.)
By studying for seven years, they should become proficient enough to be able to play on their own or take it up again later.
10-point teacher selection checklist
Finding the right balance between cost and quality can be a challenge. The best teachers often have a waiting list, so plan ahead.
There’s a wide spectrum of teachers, ranging from awful to highly qualified. Here are some qualities of a “qualified” teacher:
1. Has a teaching area separate from other household activity. Ideally, a teaching studio just for that purpose – complete with a variety of teaching aids.
2. Teaches full-time (or as close as is feasible, given that most students are unavailable till 3pm). Ask how many students he has… if he has upwards of 30 students, consider that full-time. Exception: someone who plays in a professional symphony and teaches on the side.
3. Has been teaching for 5 years or more (if you don’t want your child being a guinea pig). If he’s been teaching full-time for at least five years, you should be in pretty good shape, based on the standard of 10,000 hours to achieve competency.
4. Holds your child’s lesson time sacred. You’re paying for his time, as well as his expertise. Therefore, he shouldn’t answer or talk on the phone, eat dinner, or talk with another student’s parents during your child’s scheduled lesson time.
5. Requires weekly lessons. I can guarantee your child will make faster progress with weekly lessons. Don’t settle for less if you want this endeavor to be successful.
6. Refuses to come to your house. Your home is full of distractions – dogs, phones, toddlers running around – and you’ll miss the teaching aids of the studio. Plus, why would the best teachers take a “pay cut” by having to schedule non-paid driving time when they could schedule other students during that time? The exception might be if you have three or four children taking lessons from him back to back, and you can schedule lessons during their slower times.
7. Has a high quality piano/instrument. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. But if he’s serious about teaching, he really should invest in a high quality instrument.
8. Has a music performance degree in his instrument, or has studied privately for 15+ years. Ask about his playing background, colleges attended, etc.
9. Tries to make it fun for your child. Ask about his philosophy of teaching. “Work” has become an evil four-letter word these days. When I was teaching lessons, I knew piano competed with sports and other “fun” activities, so I had to make it fun – at least until competency made it fun.
10. Isn’t the cheapest option available. Don’t go cheap; you may get what you pay for. Many of my transfer students had nothing to show for one to three years of lessons. That’s a waste. If the teacher is a professional, he deserves (and will ask for) professional fees. Anything less is a sign he may teach to a low standard.
Wondering how to start your search? Call the music teachers at your nearby public school, music stores, or contact your area symphony. Or ask other home school moms or people in your neighborhood.
Start now and your child can enjoy years of making beautiful music – with scores of other benefits.
[i] James Catterall, UCLA, 1997.
[ii] Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers, The College Board, compiled by Music Educators Conference, 2001.
[iii] Study by E. Glenn Schellenberg, University of Toronto at Mississauga, 2004.
[iv] Neurological Research, 1997.
[v] National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 First Follow-Up, U.S. Department of Education.
[vi] “The Comparative Academic Abilities of Students in Education and in Other Areas of a Multi-Focus University,” Peter H. Wood, ERIC Document No. ED327480; “The Case for Music in Schools”, Phi Delta Kappan, 1994.
[vii] Schlaug et al 2005.
[viii] Emory University School of Medicine, study researcher neurologist Brenda Hanna-Pladdy.
[ix] Northwestern University
[x] Pascual-Leone 2001.
[xi] Kraus et al 2014.