Author: Alison Johnson
Many people have heard about the potential benefits of childhood music lessons, including improved focus, memory, fine motor skills and self-discipline, decreased stress levels and stronger performance in some academic areas, particularly math.
But what if a child plays an instrument for only a short time and then wants to quit, and then never practices again? That happens all the time, of course. Have those poor parents just thrown a bunch of cash and time out the window?
No, according to a new study from the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University. That report, recently published in the journal Neuroscience, found that as little as a year of formal childhood musical training leads to improvements in the brain's response to sound that linger at least into early adulthood. That trait is tied to several learning and listening skills, including memory, reading and the ability to hear conversations in noisy settings.
Researchers looked at 45 young adults -- 30 former instrumental students and 15 who'd had no musical training -- and found the differences in those who took lessons during elementary or middle school. Previous studies had focused on people who currently play an instrument, rather than the many more who give up lessons at some point during childhood.
How long into adulthood does the nervous system boost last? That's an unknown, and a question for future studies. The Northwestern report also does suggest that more years of lessons -- starting early and quitting later -- may offer more lasting benefits. The bottom line, however, seems to be that even a little training goes a long way.
That doesn't surprise Rebecca Lowe, director of Centerstage Academy in Yorktown, where students begin music and performing arts lessons as young as age 3 (depending on the child, she offers these ages as general guidelines for when kids can successfully start on an instrument: 3 for piano and violin, 5 for drums, 7 for guitar and 7-10 for brass and woodwind).
"It's good to know that science is confirming what many teachers have been witnessing for years," Lowe says of music students' ability to filter and respond to a variety of sounds. "I look at it as a 'muscle' that must be used to be developed -- the more frequent and specific the 'workout,' the better its function. It may be too early to know if (music) will become their passion and if they will stick with it for years to come, but without the initial exposure, that 'muscle' may not ever have the chance to be developed and the benefits will remain untapped."
Good news for parents discouraged by that dusty, abandoned piano or guitar in their home.