Music to Parents' Ears
Suzanne Boynton | New York Times | Special Features

Want to help your child succeed in school? Start now, while she’s young, by getting her into the school band or orchestra. Or the chorus. Or give her piano lessons.

The U.S. College Board, which administers the SAT test used by most U.S. universities to determine admissions, found that music students outperform others by 52 points on the verbal portion of the SAT, and 37 points in math.

Even though a youngster may be too small to reach the last note on the trombone slide or can’t stretch his thumb and pinkie an octave on the keyboard, don’t putt off lessons.

The window of opportunity for a child to most easily understand music, say developmental psychologists, is from infancy to 10. Music helps children form neural bridges from birth. It’s harder to learn if the child begins later.

The human brain is a mass of neurons. Think of it as a three-dimensional dot-to-dot with more dots (neurons) than could ever be connected.

Connections – information pathways called neural bridges – are formed or strengthened each time a child is exposed to stimulation. The more bridges that form, the more the intellect is developed. Neurons that receive no information for a period of time die off, leaving weak spots.

Plato once said that music “is a more potent instrument than any other for education.”

This has been well-established by research on the link between an early musical education and other academic skills.

Psychologist Fran Rauscher and physicist Gordon Shaw of the University of California at Irvine have conducted a variety of tests involving music and learning. One showed that piano instructioni beat computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children’s abstract reasoning skills – those needed for learning math and science.

The scientists gave a group of three-year-olds piano lessons for eight months. Though the tots’ motor skills didn’t bode well for serious piano-playing, their spatial intelligence increased by an average of 46 percent. Classmates who received no musical training improved their spatial intelligence by six per cent in the same period.

Rauscher and Shaw are best known for their study showing that just listening to complex music, such as pieces written by the classical composers, could temporarily enhance spacial reasoning in people of all ages, a phenomenon dubbed “The Mozart Effect.”

Other studies have shown that music combined with movement, as in ballet lessons or the Orff music program for children aged 3 to 12, improves children’s language and motor skills development.

“We teach sound and listening skills almost immediately,” says Orff expert Edna Geary, chairman of music education at the Boston Conservatory. By Grade 3, Orff students are writing music, to become familiar with its structure.

“Talent is no accident of birth,” wrote the late Shinichi Suzuki, author of Nurtured by Love, and the Japanese violinist who founded the Suzuki method, in which children as young as three years of age are taught to play lengthy instrumental pieces from memory.

After the benefits of musical instruction were publicized in the media, there was a rush by parents to enroll their children in some type of early childhood music program.

Private music academies and individual instructors – such as piano teacher who work out of their homes – began waiting lists to keep up with the demand.

Greensboro, N.C. based Kindermusik International recently teamed up with Gymboree to offer music classes at the children’s play program locations across the U.S.

Most children, however, still get their first taste of reading musical notes, playing strings or woodwinds, or singing in a chorus in their elementary schools.

Public schools music programs usually wait until Grade 4 to 5 to introduce specific instruments.

Beverly Barron-Stolcz, an elementary music teacher in Santa Rosa, Calif., starts her Grade 4 beginning players off with three weeks of music theory.

“A lot of kids have the idea they’re going to get on the instrument and as magically going to be able to play it. Then they get an instrument, can’t play, get frustrated and drop it,” said Barron-Stolcz, who teaches both band and orchestra.

“I like to get them comfortable with the language first. If you put lines and spaces [the musical staff] in front of them and tell them what to do with their fingers at the same time, it’s too much for them.”

Half an hour a day is the optimal practice time for beginning students, say music instructors, who stress that virtually every child can succeed musically on some level.

Students who don’t become professional musicians or instructors will at least have developed a lifelong appreciation for music.

“I still enjoy playing as a stress-reliever,” says Amy Hendrick, who just signed up her eight-year old son, David, for weekly piano lessons in suburban Atlanta.

“Music is a source of joy for me, and I would hate to deny that to my son,” she adds. “You can’t back up and say: ‘Oh gosh, I wish I’d have learned that as a child.'”