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Music Education: Giving Kids an Ear for Learning

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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Music Education: Giving Kids an Ear for Learning

What began as an experiment to learn more about how the brain works spawned an industry based on the belief that listening to certain types of music—specifically Mozart compositions—can improve learning. And according to sales figures for products related to the "Mozart effect," parents are flocking to the theory in droves in the hopes of helping their kids learn.

"Mozart Effect" Still Unclear

According to recent research at Harvard University, however, the connection between Mozart and learning remains unclear. In fact, Harvard researchers concluded that while some studies show a strong link between learning music and completing certain kinds of tasks, there is danger in tying music education to academic performance.

"We can't risk narrowing the education of our students to that which can be measured by a math or reading test," warns Lois Hetland, one of the Harvard researchers.

Music and the Brain

Neurobiologist Gordon Shaw has spent years studying the effects of music on brain development and was a part of the initial scientific studies that linked listening to Mozart's music to short-term enhanced brain functioning in college students.

Shaw, president of the Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute (MIND), theorizes that babies are born with certain neural patterns in their brains and that certain types of music stimulate those innate connections, specifically those that control the ability to visualize items in space, known as spatial-temporal reasoning.

The practical applications of spatial-temporal reasoning include tasks such as advanced math, surgery, engineering, and architecture. Shaw and his colleagues view music as "a window to higher brain function."

They set out to prove it by teaching young children how to read and play piano keyboards, after which they saw continued increases in the children's temporal-spatial reasoning skills.

More Research Necessary

"I think it's a very interesting hypothesis, but I also think we have not seen enough data," says Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. "I feel it's probably much more complicated and there are probably more advantages in other areas of the brain, not just those areas that have to do with visual-spatial encoding."

Schlaug wonders whether the academic improvement measured after children learned how to play a musical instrument is a result of the music itself or if it has more to do with learning discipline, concentration, and employing creative learning strategies.

Despite disagreement among experts over whether music's impact on learning is short-term or long-term or due to developmental or behavioral changes, Schlaug says that "everybody agrees that there are positive effects on cognitive development."

Experts also agree that children have a greater capacity for learning and benefiting from music education if they start before adolescence.

"There is good evidence that starting early allows you to perceive more, understand more, think more, and express more," says Hetland.

Music's Advantages

How can you help even the youngest children benefit from the advantages of music, both in learning and in life? Ardene Shafer, director of member action and special projects for the National Association for Music Education, offers these tips:

Newborns and Infants

  • Make time to listen to music with your baby every day.
  • Offer a mix of standard "baby" music with music you enjoy (just nothing too loud or disturbing).
  • Sing songs to your baby and encourage your baby to make sounds in return. The give-and-take aspect of creating music together is one that you can build on as your baby grows.


  • Continue to listen to music together on a daily basis and begin introducing names of songs and different types of music.
  • Make up silly songs together and teach each other new words by "echoing" each other's patterns and lyrics.
  • Make music together, whether it's banging on pots and pans on the kitchen floor or beating on a drum.
  • Add movement to the mix. Encourage your child to move to the rhythm of the music.


  • Ask your preschooler about different tones and pitches as you listen to music together. Which is higher? Which is lower?
  • Encourage your preschooler to think about how different types of music make him feel.
  • Continue to learn new songs together. Encourage your child to teach you songs he learns at school.
  • Add new instruments to your daily jam sessions. Create your own percussion instruments with empty coffee cans filled with dry beans. Talk about different instruments and the different sounds they make.
  • Think about introducing the study of a musical instrument. Piano and violin are typical choices for very young children. Whatever you choose, be sure it's something your child enjoys, and pick a teacher with lots of experience teaching young children.
  • Have fun dancing to music that you both enjoy.

School-age children

  • Encourage your children to learn a musical instrument if they haven't already begun.
  • Don't make music practice a battleground. Expect dry spells as well as spurts of learning, and try to avoid conflicts about daily practices.
  • Tell your children how much you enjoy hearing them play their instruments.
  • Don't expect musical perfection or immediate rewards when your children begin learning an instrument. Some young musicians struggle for years and then blossom when they reach middle school.

A Powerful Teaching Tool

Whether music enhances brain power, enriches academic curricula, influences behavior, or simply provides pleasure, its most indisputable effect is as personal as it is universal.

"I speak of my own experience," says Dr. Schlaug, who grew up playing the organ. "Learning a musical instrument teaches you a lot about yourself."


Music Education Online
Children's Music Workshop

The National Association for Music Education


Alberta Music Education Foundation

Coalition for Music Education in Canada


Campbell D. The Mozart Effect for Children. William Morrow; 2000.

The National Association for Music Education website. Available at: http://www.menc.org.

Reviewing education and the arts project. Harvard Graduate School of Education website. Available at: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/Research/REAP.htm.

Shaw G. Keeping Mozart in Mind. Academic Press; 2000.

Last reviewed February 2008 by ]]> Theodor B. Rais, MD]]>

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.



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