I have many fond childhood memories that involve music. Dancing to Madonna when I was a toddler and begging my parents to sign me up for dance classes like my big sister, wanting to learn how to play every instrument, and actually learning how to play the clarinet and the piano. When I reached the ripe old age of eight, I was involved in my school’s annual themed second-grade play. That year, we performed music from the 50s and 60s, so my classmates and I scream-sang our hearts out to classics like I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Jailhouse Rock, and My Guy, all while wearing poodle skirts and saddle shoes.
These musical memories are at the front of my mind because today is Make Music Day, or Fête de la Musique as it’s known in its country of origin, France. This 36th annual celebration of music gives people throughout the world the opportunity to enjoy or participate in free public performances of music, and to consider the value of music in general as well as how music affects learning and can shape us as children (and later as adolescents and adults). And as research has shown, the effects of learning how to play instruments are lasting, and can help some students work through learning delays and deficits.
What’s so special about learning how to play music?
Many studies over the years have shown that playing music engages the brain in a unique way that virtually no other activity does, including other artistic activities. But why is this? Playing music requires the use of nearly every area of the brain at the same time, and each of these areas is doing its part of the work instantaneously. Or, as stated in a 2014 TEDEd video, “playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout.” Just like working out, practicing music helps strengthen the brain functions required to play music, particularly those in the visual, motor, and auditory cortices.
Additionally, studies have shown that the younger kids are when they start learning how to play music, the stronger the connections are in their brains. Learning how to play an instrument between the ages of 6 and 8 results in more significant brain development, which is especially important when it comes to motor skills.
The benefits of learning how to play music don’t stop with motor skills. Children also get better at processing language, thanks in part to the work required to process music. As kids learn how to play music, they are also strengthening their brains’ ability to process things like pitch, timing, and timbre. As a result, spoken words and parts of words become clearer more quickly, which will help them in school and when speaking with others.
This is of particular importance for children with learning deficits or those who hear fewer words in infancy. The connections in the brain that are strengthened as a result of learning how to play music help the brain to cut through the “noise” to get to the important and relevant information. And with so much sensory information available to us constantly, being able to do this can be key to being successful in school.
Learning to play music also shows kids what discipline and practice can lead to. Being able to see and hear the results of their hard work can inspire kids to work hard at other challenging things, like science projects, math homework, and reading. And for those students who particularly enjoy music class or lessons, knowing that they have their music learning to look forward to can help keep them engaged and motivated in other, more difficult classes.
What about listening to music?
Listening to music also engages the brain in a way that can help learning. For starters, songs can make it easier to remember information. Just ask someone who watched Schoolhouse Rock how a bill becomes a law, or someone who watched The Animaniacs to name all the presidents! Or ask anyone to recite the alphabet!
That’s because hearing music also stimulates the brain in a significant way. Listening to music can help enhance the memories of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, so why not use it to help children learn? Sing About Science & Math is, as they say, the “Wikipedia of science songs,” and was built with a strong focus on using music to aid in learning. The site houses over 7,000 educational songs about science, as well as lesson plans to help integrate these songs into instruction.
Listening to music can also help you to focus while taking part in other activities. Enjoying classical or other relaxing music while reading can drown out other distracting noises, and listening to upbeat, energetic music while getting quizzed for a test can help you stay motivated. Including music in lessons and other classroom activities can also help keep your students interested in what they’re learning, and if you continue using the same music while reviewing the material, it can help reinforce what you’re teaching.
How else can music help students?
In addition to the myriad benefits already described, music can help kids build their confidence and self-esteem. Being successful at something fun that they enjoy participating in can transform a child’s school experience. And the gains they can experience from music education will help them in many of their classes and future endeavors.
The value of arts education can’t be overstated. The creativity, free expression, and intellectual curiosity that comes along with learning about music, painting, drawing, and so on helps children both be more well-rounded learners and individuals, and explore interests that they might not have known they had otherwise. And on top of that, arts education can improve performance on standardized tests and in other classes (they didn’t change STEM to STEAM for nothing!).
Giving children the opportunity to participate in creative endeavors can shape them for life, but many schools don’t have the funding to provide music education. There are programs, like the Harmony Project in Los Angeles and VH1’s Save The Music Foundation, that do great work in helping bring music education to students who wouldn’t otherwise have it (and that can use your help to continue offering these opportunities). There are also plenty of apps available to budding musicians of all ages, and online courses for those who are interested in learning more about music in general. Students need more opportunities to learn, play, and listen to music so they can explore their interests, stimulate their brains, and develop important skills. Get out there with your students and make some music today!