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Smarter Kids in Just Twelve Weeks!

January 20th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Henry David Abraham MD

This is a joke, right? Like six minute abs? No, it is not a joke, but the conclusion of a scientific study on the value of teaching kids music. Psychologist Hossein Kaviani and others in England randomly assigned five and six year olds to one of two groups for twelve weeks: one group received music training, and one didn’t. At the end of the study the first group had higher IQs, especially in verbal reasoning and short term memory.  To anyone who’s studied music, this is no big surprise. A raft of researchers has confirmed psychological benefits from music. Neurologist Robert Ellis and colleagues at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston have even found where in the brain these benefits occur. And the Journal of Neuroscience reports that brain changes from learning music can persist for at least a decade after the lessons stop.

What about babies? Music gives infants a boost, too, in language and social development. Lullabies sung to premature infants in the hospital affect their heart and lungs, improve feeding, and increase alertness. And as any pregnant mother will tell you, fetuses too, got rhythm. One mother told me she has fond memories of a pregnancy in which one of her kids in utero responded to different songs from Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’- “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” (bladder kicking), and “Two Sleepy People,” (party over, night-night). Maestro Joel Smirnoff of the Cleveland Institute of Music speculates that such early connections to music are tied to the first rhythms a fetus hears in the womb- the sound of its mother’s heartbeat. This is likely the foundation rhythm in lullabies, chants, and even the likes of Bach and Beethoven. It’s also the unconscious basis for the near universal appeal of rock and roll. And if your copy of the medical journal, Noise Health, was lost in the mail, you missed the report that even cells in a Petri dish can respond to music by changing their size and contents.

Then there are the benefits that music brings to a kid’s personality and character. Kids see cultural doors open onto different times and places. They learn discipline and perseverance. As musical skills increase, they see themselves go from nowhere to somewhere, which gives self-esteem a shot in the arm. They learn to play together. They feel the pride of doing something really hard, perhaps something that even their parents can’t do. Music is about doing, and doing is the heart and soul of both school and the workplace.

Music needs a place in every home, and I don’t mean the radio. Humans at home need to make music. Parents with infants and toddlers should sing and dance with them, and play rhythmic games. Patty cake is still at the top of the baby charts. Newborns need music, too, though this one can be tricky. A music teacher said she only played Bach and Mozart to her babies, not Beethoven. I didn’t know why until I made that mistake with my grandson. A little of Beethoven’s Ninth to get him to sleep, right? Ah, the 3rd movement, a dream, it’s working, he’s drifting off. Then comes the 4th, the ever popular Ode to Joy. You know the piece: trumpets, sopranos, high octane pleading about joy and brotherhood best heard in an open field. A few blasts of “Freude!” and the grandson slept no more.

With all this power packed into music lessons, it only baffles why music education has been a casualty in more than half of the states’ cutbacks this the last year. Happily, Lexington is an exception. The 2013 school budget eliminated the regressive fees for music lessons in elementary schools. Bravo, School Committee! In the last six years the number of kids in this program has grown from 314 to 501. And bravo, parents, who know a good thing when they see it! But winning the battle is not winning the war. Parents are in a great position to put cognitive science in practice.

Music lessons come in many flavors. The Suzuki systems for violin and piano are admirable for fostering a stronger bond between parent and child, because both parent and child are students of the instrument. This is no time to be shy. We are not looking for the next Joshua Bell here, but a stronger, more resourceful child. You need nerves of steel, however, when the violin slips from the fingers of a five year old and crashes to the floor. Fear not. Student violins are built to take a hit. And you don’t have to do this alone. Schools are behind you, public and music, and an army of gifted public and private teachers. Music changes the child. And the child changes society.

One pioneering example of music as social change is the after school program, Neighborhood Strings. Two string players, Peter Sulski and Ariana Falk, formed it two years ago in the “Mean South” section of Worcester. They teach violin, viola and cello to twenty kids of Hispanic, Vietnamese and Albanian origins. The students learn how to sing, read music and count rhythms. They play pieces like Boil Them Cabbage Down and March of the First Finger. The kid Oscar is known for his enthusiasm. The kid Anderson has a flawless grip on the bow. Their last concert drew 800 people. Sulski and Falk have a dream. They hope to see these twenty kids go to college. Why not?

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