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Tuning up childhood: The power of playing music in the lives of kids

Published: Friday, Sept. 5 2014 6:15 a.m. MDT

Tyler Habermeyer learns to play the trumpet. His mom wrote about simple and practical ideas to help transform your child's life through the power of music.

Family photo

Sharlene Habermeyer grew up in a large, boisterous family in which all eight children took piano lessons and everyone learned a different instrument, as well. Her husband came from a musical family, too, so there was no question music would play an important role in how they raised their family.

As a kid, she didn't understand the value of musical education, but Habermeyer has spent the past 25 years studying how music impacts brain development of young children. A college instructor and lecturer, she sees music as an intrinsic part of a well-rounded, high-quality life. A few years ago, the Torrance, California, mom compiled the evidence into the book "Good Music Brighter Children," recently updated into a second edition.

Studies — and lots of them — bolster her conviction that music is somewhat magical in its ability to teach and reach, enhancing learning and building enduring skills.

Aniruddh D. Patel, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University who wrote "Music, Language and the Brain," has credited learning to play an instrument with developing such abilities as discerning emotions from voice and being able to multitask.

In an interview with NPR's CommonHealth program in Boston, Patel said that music neuroscience is a burgeoning field that launched around 2000 and includes many studies of how the brain changes when people — often children — begin to learn to play music.

"How do we process sequences with complex hierarchical structure and make sense of them? How do we integrate sensation and action? How do we remember long and difficult sequences of information?" Patel asked in the interview. "These are fundamental neuroscience questions, and music can help us answer some of these questions because it's in some ways simpler than language, but it's still of sufficient complexity that it can address these very deep and important aspects of human brain function."

Click on the slideshow at the top left of this page to view 10 families who changed the world of music.

Research shows ...

A study presented in August at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in Washington said making music, whether playing an instrument or singing, improves reading and language skills for disadvantaged children, offsetting some of the "academic gap" between low-income and higher-income families.

"Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn," said Nina Kraus, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University who presented the study to the APA. "While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower-income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap."

She said musical training improves the way young nervous systems process sounds in busy environments such as classrooms and playgrounds.

A Canadian study published last year in the Journal of Neuroscience found that early music lessons — before age 7 — shape actual brain development. The researchers, from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University, noted that those children developed strong connections between the motor regions of the brain, leading to better motor skills. The earlier the lessons, the stronger the connections.

Habermeyer's deep dive into music research, carefully footnoted in her book, led her to write that "when music is taught comprehensively and sequentially in the school, it increases math, science, reading, history and SAT scores. It also reaches at-risk students by increasing their confidence and those with learning disabilities by making the learning process easier. Additionally, studying a musical instrument helps develop imagination, invention, creative thinking, communication and teamwork skills — precisely those attributes needed for a 21st-century global workforce."

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