Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
Music education benefits all children. Research reveals manifold benefits of exposing children to music from an early age – regardless of whether they make music a profession. Today, I explore three ways in which the power of music helps children reach their individual potential.
1.) Music Education Boosts the Brain
“For a long time other scientists believed that genetics was destiny. But we know now that brain growth and organizations are continuously responding to the environment. Music is part of that.”– Dr. Thomas Verny in The Mozart Effect for Children
Research shows that children with music education tend to do better in the following areas:
- Reading performance
- Mathematical skills
- Motor skills
- Self-discipline, attention span and study habits
- Standardized test scores
- When trained in music from childhood, their brains tend to exhibit more EEG (brainwave) coherence as adult musicians
Even babies benefit! Because babies can hear before they are born, music can stimulate or calm a baby’s heart rate in the womb. Hearing classical music also corresponds to a higher chance of survival for premature babies.
2.) Music Education Enhances Confidence
“I consider music to be an essential ingredient for healthy psychological development; and second, everyone needs to nurture his or her musical potential in order to gain self-enrichment, which can lead to better social relationships. … the person does not need to perform in front of others, but there should be an effort to benefit psychologically from the world of music.”– Dr. Robert Henley Woody, Sr. in Social Psychology of Musicianship
Children will gain a sense of accomplishment and thereby confidence when they see their practice result in an ability to successfully play (or sing) a musical piece. As they tackle successively difficult music, their sense of mastery and confidence will grow. Even 10-15 minutes a day of practice is enough for a beginner to get started with piano.
Music gives children a healthy way to vent and express emotions, thereby empowering them with a sense of control over their life. Some children feel most comfortable expressing themselves through music because its communicative power is independent of words or pictures.
Wolfgang Mozart, Tina Turner, Alicia Keys, Elton John and Leonard Bernstein are a few of many accomplished musicians who faced challenges in childhood. As boys, Mozart, Elton John and Bernstein had very difficult relationships with their fathers. Keys’ father left her and her mother. Turner’s mother abandoned her and she struggled with dyslexia.
How did these musicians achieve professional confidence and success? Certainly, each possessed inner strength and natural talent. However it helped that music is an incredibly therapeutic form of art.
“As far back as I can remember, putting my hands on a keyboard felt like coming home to myself. … I was content to play with other children. But I was also content to see them leave – eager to reclaim my space and my time at the piano. I’m still that way,” Alicia Keys shares in her memoir, More Myself: A Journey.
At age 10, Leonard Bernstein became more confident and healthy when his Aunt Clara gifted his family with an upright piano. He recalls: “I remember touching this thing the day it arrived, just stroking it and going mad. I knew, from that moment to this, that music was ‘it.’ There was no question in my mind that my life was to be about music.” Bernstein became one of the world’s most acclaimed conductors. His composing credits include the Broadway musical West Side Story.
“Naked” is the term that Dr. Robert Henley Woody, Sr. uses to describe musicians, explaining: “exposing ones artistry to others requires stripping away any accoutrements of guardedness of self-concept.”
Playing an instrument is not for every child. They can still experience music’s benefits in other ways. For example, by listening to quality music at home or attending sing-a-longs for kids. A music education opens doors for every child, helping them feel at home in their own skin and comfortable taking healthy risks. Music helps kids embrace new experiences and see adventure where others wilt in the face of discomfort.
To Build Confidence, Audience Size is Negligible
Many children, including those gifted musically, are socially timid. Shy children benefit from the confidence-building qualities of musicianship even without performing for large crowds. Singing or playing before a music teacher and close family is enough to help kids develop courage.
A little-known fact about author Agatha Christie is that she had the natural talent and discipline to become a concert pianist. However, she was very shy – even as an adult – and knew she could never command a stage. Her primary audience was herself, her piano teachers and her family. Still, her investment in mastering the piano benefited her writing, a profession of cadence.
Some shy children find that musical performance is one area where they feel most alive, regardless of audience size. One of my happiest moments was when I was five years old, dancing to the soul classic I Heard It Through the Grapevine sung by Marvin Gaye. My Jazz dance teacher, Betty Jo, selected me for a short solo, telling my mom: “She’s got rhythm.” From a young age, I could find the down beat in any song. It was intuitive because some songs have a down-beat that is only implied.
I loved the way Grapevine flowed through my body, making me feel joyful and alive. Cool shades bejeweled my eyes. Jazz gloves covered my hands. A tuxedo-style leotard and bow tie completed the funky ensemble. Dressing up for recitals was fun. But what I loved most was moving in synchrony to soulful tunes.
In middle school, I switched from dancing to playing the flute. Quality, conservatory-level dance lessons were outside the family budget. My Aunt Sue generously let me borrow her beautiful flute and I fell in love with music again.
Jazz has spoken to me since my five-year-old Grapevine solo. How serendipitous that the flute shares the same fingerings as an instrument which embodies jazz: the saxophone. I played flute in middle school band. In high school, I played flute in a local youth orchestra. I learned the rudiments of song through church and high school choirs. High school drama teachers cast me as the lead in several plays. It was pure joy to bring joy to an audience. (At least I hope they experienced joy!)
Music never became a career – but rhythm, dance, theatre and song helped shape me personally and as a writer.
Finding a Music Education Teacher
As a child, I had a piano teacher who was the wrong fit for me. I took music seriously and expected teachers to as well. She spoke down to students, using language she felt was hip. We played silly songs evoking nursery lullabies. One October day, she came to class wearing a goofy orange headband with springs extending like bug antennae and plastic pumpkins wobbling at the end of each spring. I came home and declared: “I’m not going back to her.”
Funny? Yes. Ridiculous? No. Kids are tough clients. In my heart, I knew I learned best from teachers who pushed, inspired and took their craft seriously. In contrast, I thrived with my middle grade band teacher. Exacting and encouraging, her professional demeanor made all the difference in my desire to play and practice the flute.
The right teacher sparks and maintains a child’s interest in music. Experts suggest conducting your search for a music teacher like you are interviewing candidates for a job. Ultimately, a personality clash between student and teacher can compel a promising student to give up.
Music requires sacrifice. When kids would rather be outside playing with other kids, they need to be inside for 20-30 minutes practicing. It takes a while for kids to see the payoff from music education because they can’t immediately play the cool, complicated tunes. Scales are tedious!
The right teacher helps a student envision the longterm reward. Good teachers know when to push and when to relax. Finally, I believe a wise music teacher will gradually expose students to a wide range of genres rather than restricting the repertoire to one style.
3.) Music Education Makes Kids Move
Movement is a proven predictor of longevity. When 105-year-old Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins set a world running record in 2021, she shared this advice: “My message to others is that you have to stay active if you want to be healthy and happy as you age.”
It’s almost impossible to listen to music without feeling an impulse to move – even if it’s tapping our toes or bobbing our heads. Children, less self-conscious than adults, often give themselves fully to the beat. It’s common for toddlers to start “dancing” when they hear music – swaying their hips, smiling and laughing.
Adults are less willing than children to “bust a move” in public. But adults are fully aware of music’s power to motivate the body. Runners use earbuds to pump themselves up to pound the pavement. Gyms blast music to encourage intense exercise. Football stadiums bring out the drumline to rouse crowds from the bleachers to cheer on the home team. Roofers and carpenters motivate themselves to perform back-breaking work in sweltering heat by blasting their favorite beats. Music universally inspires us to move, groove, dance and jive.
Neuroscience research shows strong connections between movement and learning; between movement and memory. Forming these connections is especially fundamental in early childhood development, according to experts:
“Children learn by experiencing their world using all of their senses. The restriction of movement, especially at a young age, impedes the experiential learning process.”Dr. Vanessa Durand, pediatrician, to The Atlantic
Music “education” doesn’t need to be a formal class. You can help your child grow musically by simply making it a habit to play high-quality music for their listening enjoyment in the car and around the house. Encourage your child to use their body to move joyfully. Have them tap rhythms on a toy drum or a cardboard box. Dance and play the day away!
Here’s a little ditty I made up, in the shape of a microphone, to get you started…
Move. Grove. Listen to. Country. R&B. Steven Sondheim. Lorie Line. Tina Turner, what a singer! Motown. Funkytown. Rock ’n’ Roll. Classical. Feel all that Jazz. Lovin’ up your Soul.
Sources and Further Reading
Teachers may find the following books helpful, as I did in writing this article:
- The Mozart Effect for Children, by Don Campbell
- Great Masters: Mozart—His Life and Music by Professor Robert Greenberg
- Social Psychology of Musicianship, by Dr. Robert Henley Wood, Sr.
- Maran Illustrated Piano by maranGraphics
- Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton