Have you ever picked up a guitar and sworn that you were becoming smarter? Sat down at a piano and decided that you were finally ready to read James Joyce’s Ulysses? Put on some classical and felt that you were more empathetic to your friend’s issues? These examples may sound extreme, but there is overwhelming evidence that learning an instrument and even just listening to music can have powerful effects on children’s brains.
The Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California published a 5-year study in 2016 that showed that music instruction accelerates brain development in young children, “particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills.” Using MRIs and EEGs and various behavioral tests, the study found that the auditory systems of children receiving music instruction–up to 7 hours a week–were advancing more quickly than their peers who were either playing sports or not doing any specific after-school program. This advanced auditory system has direct implications for accelerated language development, reading ability, and communication.
Which is why there has been such a push for music education in public schools for so long.
A 2014 TIME article warned, however, that many of these cognitive benefits only show up for students who are actively engaged in music instruction: TIME quotes Nina Kraus, one of the authors of the Northwestern University study, who said that it was the students who “had good attendance, who paid close attention in class, ‘and were the most on-task during their lesson'” that saw marked neural processing results.
So you can’t just sit that 5-year-old down behind a cello and wait for their acceptance to Harvard? Well, no. You’ll have to work with your child to make sure they are connecting with their teacher, the music itself, the other kids in their classes. Make it a fun family affair and all take up an instrument! And even if just listening to music doesn’t raise a child’s IQ like playing music is said to do, if you play music around the house that you love, you’ll be fostering an appreciation of music in your child that will last a lifetime–it might just make them that much more likely to sit down behind that cello!