Music & Literacy: Parallel Intelligences

One of the most important predictors of socioeconomic stability, health and quality of life is literacy. If a child hits their early literacy milestones, they are more likely to excel in almost all areas of their life in the future. A HuffPost Canada article cites a University of Edinburgh study that showed that “reading well at age seven was a key factor in determining whether people went on to get a high-income job. Reading level at age seven was linked to social class even 35 years on.” 
As a parent, you’re probably already aware of how important reading and writing skills are for your child. You’ve most likely been reading to them since they were barely out of the womb and your child’s school has no doubt been hammering the ABCs and other early literacy activities and exercises. The question is, how do you ensure, or at least encourage, your child to hit these milestones and set them on the course for a better life? Firstly, it’s important to remember that each child is different, and so each brain is different and it can be damaging or just not helpful to base your entire parenting approach on these generalized markers of success. However, there is definitely something you can do to promote literacy and improve reading skills that’s not just burning the midnight oil on phonics with your five-year-old: music! Whether learning an instrument, singing, or simply clapping out a beat, music improves overall brain function and therefore boosts reading and writing skills. 


From the very earliest ages, music and literacy are intertwined: you learn the alphabet as a song first–in English, and in many other languages; you sing many nursery rhymes that demonstrate rhyming and rhythm. This isn’t by accident. According to Northwestern University audiology professor Nina Kraus, “Music automatically sharpens the nervous system’s response to sounds,” so it primes children’s brains to recognize sounds as distinct and to distinguish between them–a key step in learning how to read (think about the process of understanding that the sound for “e” is different from that of “a.”) Kraus has done extensive research on the effects of music on the brain and she’s found that “learning music  improves the concentration, memory and focus of children in the classroom by improving their neural functions.” 
Much of Kraus’ early research focused on affluent children–as they are more likely to go to schools that have music programs and to take music lessons outside of school. However, she has also studied children from more disadvantaged neighborhoods and backgrounds and found that giving children regular music lessons for five or more hours a week prevented a decline in reading skills. There are actually marked differences in the brains of affluent children and those of disadvantaged children: children growing up in poorer areas with poorly educated parents have “noisier brains”: they cannot distinguish between different sounds and meanings and so often have trouble concentrating, which is one of the reasons so many kids are now being diagnosed with ADHD and other behavior and learning issues. But music actually remodels the brain to “improve the connections between sounds and meaning”–so those kids with noisier brains can more readily make sense of all that inner cacophony and are more able to take in new information, like that gained by reading. 
Not only are cognitive functions affected by learning music; the body’s sensory-motor systems are also engaged, most obviously when synchronizing a movement to a steady beat–clapping out a rhythm, for example. How does this relate to reading, you may ask? According to the study “Clapping in time parallels literacy,” this clapping task parallels the “auditory-neural and cognitive processing systems activated when learning how to read, where a repeated and flexible interaction between auditory and visual systems precedes and sustains the reading act.” The ability to keep the beat, as they say, is “necessary to organize temporal cues of speech sounds so as to facilitate the automatization of the grapheme-phoneme correspondence in reading.”


So while parents sometimes (and government officials more often) think that music and art programs should be the first to go in lean or too-busy times, remember that music primes the brain for better, faster, smarter thinking in all areas–especially those that matter most.