Why Music Matters

On the benefits of music education for children.

I’m married to a musician, which means that our house is typically filled with some type of music for a lot of the day.

Although I’m an avid music listener, I’m not generally a participant when it comes to playing it, or even singing it (since I have the voice of a slightly off-pitch cat). That is, until I had children. Like their dad, my 3-year-old and 6-year-old boys love music, and always have.

Their first smiles were directed at musical toys just as often as they were directed at me, and they could move their bodies to a beat before they could walk. I didn’t have a choice but to start participating. But to my surprise, it came quite naturally. I started humming and singing to my boys pretty much as soon as I started holding them.

In fact, it is incredibly common for mothers in cultures from all around the world to sing to their babies. Lullabies seem to have a universally recognizable sound that adults can accurately pick out even when sung in unfamiliar languages (Trehub, Unyk, & Trainor, 1993).

The big question is, does early music exposure have some benefit for infants and young children?

It turns out that, yes, exposing children to music at an early age does have several benefits. First of all, most babies love music, and they like being sung to. Evidence for this comes from a group of researchers who had new mothers sing a song of their choice to their own babies, and then sing the same song into a microphone without their babies there.

A group of adults, who didn’t know the mothers, could tell when the mothers were singing to their babies and when they weren’t, and rated their singing as more “loving” when it was directed at their babies. Most importantly, babies could tell the difference, too, and preferred to listen to the version of the songs that the mothers were singing directly to their babies (Trainor, 1996).

Music might also have a calming effect on infants, especially premature infants. In fact, research has shown that playing music for premature infants reduces the amount of time infants spend crying inconsolably (Keith, Russell, & Weaver, 2009).

As a mother who had a baby with colic (which entailed hours of inconsolably crying) I can tell you that any relief from these long periods of crying can be a lifesaver. On top of reducing crying, playing music for premature babies has also been shown to improve their general physical health (Keith et al., 2009; Standley, 2002).

So, babies like music—probably not a shocking revelation—but does playing music for babies carry any benefits for learning? The answer isn’t clear, but it probably couldn’t hurt. Because of infants’ strong propensity to learn new information, and because their brains are still developing in the first two years of life, exposure to music and musical training might be beneficial for long-term retention. Some researchers have even compared children’s propensity to learn about music to their propensity to learn language (Trehub, 2003).

Indeed, music and language have many of the same qualities—they are both rule-based and can be used as a form of communication. Also, like language, babies learn about the properties of music quite early in life. By 6 months, babies already prefer to listen to consonance—or music that sounds predictable and pleasant—to dissonance—or music that sounds more irregular (Trainor & Heinmiller, 1998).

They can also determine whether a melody goes up or down in pitch and can even detect differences between the spaces of different notes (Trehub, Trainor, & Unyk, 1993). This suggests that, like learning a language, we might be better prepared to learn the properties of music as children than we are as adults.

Further, there is quite a lot of evidence that musical training at an early age has a number of benefits in both musical and non-musical domains. For example, musical training before the age of 7 has been shown to produce increased connections in the motor areas of the brain—areas responsible for movement. Musical training after the age of 7 had no effect on these brain regions at all (Steele, Bailey, Zatorre, & Penhune, 2013).

That means that playing a musical instrument at a young age might prepare the brain for the later coordination needed for that instrument, and that beginning music lessons early in childhood might have long-term benefits for mastery.

But that doesn’t mean there are no benefits for children who start later. There are a number of studies showing a relationship between musical training, language ability, reading skills, vocabulary, and even math skills in children older than age 8. Some of these studies are correlational, meaning that children whose parents have signed them up for music lessons also tend to score higher on a number of assessments of language and math. For these studies, it could be that children of parents who go out of their way to sign them up for music classes also go out of their way to make sure their children do well in other areas, especially academics.

But there have been experimental studies as well, where children were randomly assigned to receive music lessons or some other intervention, like computer classes. And a number of these experimental studies have also shown benefits of musical training for other academic domains, suggesting that the musical training itself produces benefits in other areas. Across most of these studies, the longer the children were involved in musical training and the younger they were when they started, the more benefits they experienced (see Hallam, 2010, for a review).

There is even evidence that musical training can boost a child’s IQ. In one classic study, groups of 6-year-olds were randomly assigned to receive music lessons (keyboard or voice), drama lessons, or no lessons at all for a period of 36 weeks. The children who received the music lessons showed increases in IQ above and beyond increases experienced by the other groups of children (Schellenberg, 2004). These findings have been replicated in another sample of 5- and 6-year-olds (Kaviani, Mirbaha, Pournaseh, & Sagan, 2014), and follow-up studies have shown that the effects can be long-lasting, with benefits showing up even into the college years (Shellenberg, 2006).

The take-home message here is children tend to love music, and it might even have a calming effect on infants. Further musical training does seem to have a variety of benefits that go beyond the domain of music itself, with gains spilling over into both language and math achievement. So perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t why music, but why not music?

Signing children up for some kind of music lessons is always a great idea, but unfortunately, music lessons can be expensive and are not available to all children and all families. Luckily, most schools offer music programs through band or choir, which is one way to get your child more involved. Additionally, some libraries and music schools offer group sessions at no cost, such as drum circles or singing groups once or twice a week.

And of course, singing and dancing at home with your kids is completely free. In fact, there is even evidence that sharing music together at home is related to increased pro-social skills (Williams et al., 2015), and a very recent study showed that attending children’s music lessons even improves parents’ moods, especially highly anxious parents (Kawase & Ogawa, 2020). So, this week, why not take a break from your usual routine to sing a song, have a dance party, or even hum your child a little lullaby—a little bit of music might be more powerful than you think.

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