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."
Children learn to appreciate beauty and develop concentration and confidence through music, said Martha Livingstone, director of vocal, early childhood and musical theater programs at Visionary College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Studying music gives memory and eye-hand coordination a boost.
From years watching music work in the lives of those at her college, she has concluded it strengthens community, too. "People who get together in a choir, band or ensemble become bonded through the creation of music."
Habermeyer introduced music to her children in different ways, from teaching them simple songs when they were tiny to ensuring they learned to play instruments. "It's fun to have instruments to beat out rhythm. We danced to it. On car trips, the kids enjoyed the catchy tunes of 'The Alphabet Operetta.'"
Simply listening to music is powerful, as well. Learning school subjects is easier, Habermeyer said, with baroque music playing in the background. "It takes about 15 minutes to get into that mode, but you will see a difference; learning is much easier." She has favorite composers for different tasks, such as Mozart or Bach for spatial/visual enhancement. Bands are good for memorization. All the classic repertoire "puts the brain on fire," she noted.
She's a fan of reading to children every day and likes to use books with which she can incorporate different types of music. Children need not be immersed in listening, she noted; 20 to 30 minutes a day has a huge impact.
Singing has many of the same benefits, said Nancy Schimmel, co-creator of the musical CD "I'm All Ears: Sing into Reading." The CD contains songs about rhyme, alliteration and syllabication used by speech therapists and reading specialists. Putting lessons to music makes learning "less onerous" for children.
Educators have long used music with small children: "Thirty Days Hath September," "The Alphabet Song," and even songs like "The Hokey Pokey" that combine words with actions and provide motor reinforcement of vocabulary, Schimmel said.
All kinds of students
Cathy Hirata, founder of the San Diego-area Where Music Begins Academy of Music, offers music lessons to special-needs students and said she's seen it impact their life skills, including improvements in math, reading and social communication. She has watched transformation.
The typical method of teaching music, though, may not work and can be overwhelming to a child who is challenged by disabilities of some type, she warned. She has learned different ways to reach those children, focusing on concepts like mapping, sequencing and patterns — which facilitate reading later on. She said she has even seen children who have not been verbal start asking questions.
Music boosts the confidence level of virtually all students, she added. Culturally, music opens a lot of doors, exposing kids to areas of life they would not otherwise get exposed to. The first rhythm one hears is the heartbeat. "Music is so pattern-based, which is how the brain works, so they can apply it to other areas of their lives without even having to think about it."
Classical music gets special attention because it has a very strict structure with complicated key changes and other features. Different aspects of a piece of music activate parts of the brain not activated before, Hirata said.
To Habermeyer, it's like picturing music as buildings. If the typical song is a house, she said, classical music is a Gothic cathedral, with awe-inspiring architecture and unexpected crannies.
A tender side
Aside from enhanced academic skills and brain development, experts perceive other benefits to inviting music into one’s life.
"The main thing I have found with music is it enriches (children's) nature in a way that sports and other things can't. There are wonderful things about sports, but they don't bring out the same qualities, like gentleness," said Laura Yeh, director of the St. Louis School of Music, who started teaching her son to play violin recently, at age 3.
"Kids who learn to play a musical instrument gain an outlet for their creativity that can bring them joy. They also reap tangible benefits that can help them as students and throughout their lives," she said.
Yeh bases her claims largely on watching student after student give himself or herself over to the art. She said music brings out generosity of spirit, consideration of how others feel and the ability to discern emotions. When she talks to parents, they are inevitably more interested in the intelligence aspect, though, she said. They love the idea that music enhances a child's memorization skills, for example.
Because learning an instrument requires commitment, it becomes natural and translates into discipline and other life skills, Yeh said, adding that she's seen it repeatedly in students.
One of her favorite benefits is the ability to become a great listener. "The idea of really listening carefully, I find, is not something we do well as people," Yeh said. "We think of things we're going to say while other people are talking. We are not listening at a deep level, instead composing our to-do list. Music really is so important to training one how to listen deeply." It is, she believes, "a skill unique to music, whatever the instrument is."
The concept of peace drives many music teachers, Yeh said, including her. "Making music together is harmonious, not fighting with each other or taking from one another. The love of harmony and peace we are cultivating — we want children to be good and harmonious and happy. The other skills important in being able to function well in society are side effects."
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