The benefits of your child learning to play an instrument
Motherhood Diaries is working in partnership with Yamaha Music London to bring you a feature series all about the importance of music in your child’s life. This feature series will include the following articles: (1) The benefits of your child learning to play an instrument (which is this article), (2) How to encourage your child to take an interest in learning music, (3) The link between music therapy and ADHD/anxiety, which will include encouraging your child to express their emotions through music (music therapy is something I relied on quite heavily growing up, as you will learn below), and (4) I will finish the series off with an extensive review of the Yamaha YDP-S34 Arius Digital Piano, which, I believe is the perfect companion to assist in your child’s piano lessons. I may add some bonus music theory lessons in the feature series too, as I had so much fun explaining the theory basics below.
So, let’s get started!
If you look around and listen, you will find music everywhere. It is in the shops when you are casually perusing the fashion aisles. It is on the soundtrack of your favourite films and it’s in your car when you’re driving to work. If you listen closely enough, it’s in nature – in the birds’ morning song, the howling gust of the wind, the pitter patter of the rain hitting the ground, and it’s in the fearsome clap of thunder. Music is unequivocally limitless in its offering to us beings – it can evoke all kinds of emotions, bring people together, and it can even make you smarter. If you dissect music, you need four out of your five senses to learn a musical instrument. So, why is music not at the forefront of our education? Of our children’s education? Why is its importance not in line with compulsory subjects like maths, English, and science? I have thought about this topic in great detail and it does make me wonder how many of us learned to play an instrument as a child. How many of us still play an instrument? And, how many of us have children who are learning to play an instrument right now?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then great! You have enriched your life and of the lives around you. If you didn’t answer yes to any of the above questions, then you are missing out. I will tell you why in a moment or two. But, first I want to alert you to the current statistics.
In 2014, ABRSM (the UK’s largest music education body) published the most comprehensive survey of the learning, progression and teaching of musical instruments ever undertaken in the UK. The survey uncovered some very interesting statistics in that seven out of ten children (69%) in the UK say that they currently play a musical instrument. This figure, however, encompasses everything from playing simple percussion at a basic level to working towards your Grade 8 exam. The survey also found that the percentage of children claiming to know how to play an instrument had increased significantly, which is cause for celebration of course. But, more needs to be done to shake off this mentality that learning to play an instrument is preserved for the rich and middle class.
“Children from lower socioeconomic groups continue to be significantly disadvantaged compared with their peers from more affluent backgrounds.” ABSRM
This is most likely down to the growing cost of musical instruments and music lessons, as well as music exams and related resources. The truth is, learning to play an instrument is expensive and therefore we are inhibiting those who can’t afford to play an instrument from the magic of musical education. It can even be argued that children who suffer from external hardship probably need the healing powers of music more so than others.
So, why is music so important?
Music makes you smarter
Many scientific studies have shown that when children learn to play music, the parts of their brain that control their motor skills, i.e. hearing, storing audio information and memory, grow and become more active. In fact, music increases a child’s memory skills – it teaches them how to create, store and retrieve memories more effectively.
This relationship between learning an instrument and high intelligence has been around for a while, but how conclusive is this evidence?
“Life without playing music is inconceivable to me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music … I get most joy in life out of music.” Albert Einstein – a master violinist as well as a revolutionary physicist.
In this article, I will also talk about the ‘transfer effects’ of learning to play an instrument and its impact on a child’s intelligence. Before I proceed, however, I would like to provide you with some history of my own musical background first.
My long journey with music
During my early childhood at primary school, I was much like my seven-year-old son is right now – bouncing off the walls, highly energetic, happy-go-lucky and very bubbly. I would talk to anyone and everyone, which meant I was prone to distracting my peers as well as being easily distracted. My teachers were unable to control my energy and one of my teachers at parents evening even asked my mum “How do you handle her every day!?” In fact, the same teacher ‘informed’ my parents that she couldn’t see a future in me academically because of my inability to have both feet on the ground and to focus on anything in class.
I was seven.
My mum was, of course, mortified because she knew deep down that I wasn’t a naughty child, but that I was just very bored and understimulated, with a thirst for knowledge and social interaction. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to myself, my parents were unable to instil that message in me early on and I carried on getting into trouble at school. In hindsight, I may have had undiagnosed ADHD.
But, it was music that changed my life – quite literally.
My parents noticed my growing obsession for music from the age of three when I would jump up and down, and clap my hands to music on the TV, especially when I saw a violin. I was singing all the time and beating to an imaginary drum, which would constantly get me into trouble at school. I don’t remember doing this of course, but my parents had an inkling that there was some connection between my love for music and my unknown, untapped musical ability, and so I was thrown into violin lessons at school when I was eight years old. My then teacher (I’ll never forget her) Mrs Marshall, believed I had a talent for playing the violin and a few years later, with her help, I passed my Grade 5 Violin and Music Theory, both with distinction.
When I was thirteen, I passed my Grade 8 Violin with distinction, apparently not losing a single mark, despite thinking I did terribly in my sight reading. Mr Wookey, my high school violin teacher regularly used to say to me, “You sight read like a don,” but I never really understood the difficulty, perhaps because the skill came naturally to me. I’m not tooting my own horn, but merely stating that it was this positive acknowledgement from Mrs Marshall, my Grade 8 examination teacher and Mr Wookey that instilled in me this inner confidence that I didn’t know I had. Something inside me had changed – like a part of my brain had finally switched on. I was a lot calmer as a person, I became more focused on my goals and my head was no longer in the clouds. I also, surprisingly had fewer detentions/timeouts, as well as, much to my parents’ relief, fewer after-school meetings with my parents to discuss my misbehaviour. I had a new objective – to learn all the instruments in the world. I wanted to do more, so my parents enrolled me in a music school (Harrow School for Young Musicians) and with the Philharmonic Orchestra I was able to tour to different countries and play in the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall. During my high school years, I led the school orchestra and string quartet, and I regularly participated in local and national events. I still had tons of energy, but I was channelling them all into orchestras, solo violin performances, singing and bands.
I ended up doing well in my GCSEs, breezing through my Music GCSE with an A*, and I felt that I had finally found my calling during my childhood years – it made me feel ten feet tall.
By the time I started uni (to study law), I had also picked up the piano, guitar, clarinet, and saxophone. I learned them all by myself, so I wasn’t great at them, or particularly skilful – I’m probably not even at a Grade 5 level – but it didn’t matter. I learned enough so that these instruments allowed me the opportunity to escape from the real world now and again – I could transfer my overflowing energy and strong emotions into playing music, much like how you use yoga to release tension in your muscles and find your inner chi. The music would flow through my bones, hit my core and I would feel centred – it felt amazing.
And, I think it cured my undiagnosed ADHD, just like music cured Will.I.Am’s ADHD!
History repeats itself
I’m now in my late thirties – I have two boys aged six and seven years old and, until I had kids, I didn’t realise exactly how beneficial music was to a child – not just the benefits, the FUNDAMENTAL IMPORTANCE that music has in a child’s overall well-being. You see, my eldest is going through EXACTLY the same problems as me – full of energy, getting distracted, and distracting people – it’s all one big déjà vu to me. Not just that, he sings all the time, and he pretends to play the piano, as well as beats to an imaginary drum. And, he even told me that he can hear music everywhere. So, I enrolled him (and my youngest) in piano lessons as early as possible and, within a few weeks, my eldest could play most of the songs in the beginner piano book. Plus, he picked up how to play the basic melody of Ed Sheeran’s Galway girl. He’s me but a few decades later and even though I have massively incorporated music into our home (I have two guitars, two violins and a piano sitting about), I still don’t see music at the forefront of their education. In fact, it’s hardly ever talked about. The waiting list at the kids’ school for violin and piano lessons is apparently one year long! So, I had to scour Facebook and ask many of my friends about how I could enrol my children in violin and piano lessons. And, now that my youngest has taken a deep interest in the drums and the guitar (I bought him a guitar and he never puts it down), I shall be enrolling him in guitar lessons too. Why? Because music is so much more important than you think for a child. And, frankly, I’d rather invest my money into music lessons than smartphones and TV screens.
Here are some of the very many benefits of children learning to play an instrument:
“Everything’s better when you add music”, Yamaha Music London
Benefits of learning to play a musical instrument
Music increases memory skills
Learning to play an instrument teaches a child how to create, store, process and retrieve memories more effectively. It is still uncertain why musicians have a long-term memory advantage, but it may be down to the training required to read music and visual cues with more proficiency.
Music improves coordination
Playing an instrument requires you to read music which is then converted in the brain to the physical movement of playing the instrument. When you’re playing in an orchestra, this coordination is further enhanced by following the conductor’s baton and listening to your fellow orchestra members to ensure you’re playing within the beat and in harmony with the rest of the instruments. If you’re a string musician like myself, you will know that there is an added nuance to this list – moving the bow in the same speed and direction as your group members.
Music increases your IQ
Music allows you to simultaneously utilise your creative right brain and logical left brain and, in fact, practising a musical instrument regularly engages in all your four brain hemispheres – and this synergy optimises your brain power.
Music teaches discipline, perseverance, and a sense of achievement
It’s not easy to pick up an instrument and play. There is a long and large learning curve, which takes time, patience, and practice. It takes discipline to progress and once your child starts to see an improvement, s/he will feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement, especially when playing in front of an audience.
Music improves concentration and attention
Many people listen to music when they are studying for their exams, driving a car, reading a book, or carrying out a task. These people claim that music helps them focus, despite needing to concentrate on two things at once. The reason for this is because the brain has two systems that work simultaneously with each other – your conscious and your subconscious. The latter is in its much simpler form, but it never switches off. As you are consciously focussing on a task, your subconscious is running in the background, scanning for anything important in your peripheral senses. The harder you find it to focus on your conscious task, the stronger your subconscious is working, picking up the sounds of the cars driving outside, people sipping at their coffee, or machines running in the background. This is why music works so well to focus your attention and concentration on the conscious task at hand. And, you can enhance this skill when playing an instrument. Playing music requires you to concentrate on the pitch, note duration, rhythm and quality of sound, all at the same time. Music engages the areas of the brain involved in paying attention, which is why, as mentioned above, I found it easier to focus and stay engaged in school as soon as I picked up an instrument. Playing an instrument is inspiring and motivating, so it becomes a transferable skill that mirrors the child’s behaviour and attitude towards the more mundane subjects like maths and science.
It would be interesting to find a study that has examined children’s attention spans in class when calming music is played in the background. I would be willing to bet that the majority of kids would find it easier to focus on their classwork if music drowned out all the other noises in the background.
Music improves maths, reading and comprehension skills
If you’ve read music before, you would know that music is just another form of mathematical equations. Without going too deep into the understanding of music theory (because then I would talk about it all day and this article would be over 10,000 words long), sight music can be dissected and further dissected into a series of rhythmic beats. I think the only way I can explain this is to show you in basic form below. (This should be fun!)
You start with your stave (these are the lines where your notes live)
The squiggly line on the left is a treble clef and signifies that the middle/base note in the scale is ‘Middle C,’ as shown below:
The stave or staff is divided into bars, which correspond to how many beats there are in each bar. The image below shows the musician that there are four beats to every bar, i.e. you tap, 1, 2, 3, 4 and then you start a new bar, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.
Now, let’s complicate this further by adding music.
The way it goes in music (generally 4/4 time like the above) is:
- Crotchet (Quarter Note) = 1 beat
- Minim (Half Note) = 2 beats
- Semibreve (Whole Note) = 4 beats.
And, just to make things harder:
- Quaver (Eighth Note) = ½ a beat
- Semiquaver (Sixteenth Note) = ¼ of a beat.
I couldn’t find a suitable image to demonstrate what I meant, so I drew it. The notes signify Middle C as mentioned above.
Going up from a Semibreve, you also have a Breve (double Whole Note), a Long (Quadruple Whole Note) and a Large (Octuple Whole Note). Going down from a Semiquaver, you have a Demisemiquaver (Thirty-second Note), Hemidemisemiquaver (Sixty-fourth Note), a Semihemidemisemiquaver (Hundred twenty-eighth note) and a Demisemihemidemisemiquaver (Two Hundred fifty-sixth note).
You see my point about music being like maths?
Now try to play this (and the notes aren’t just middle C anymore – you have a whole scale of notes!):
By understanding the beats, rhythm, and scales, while playing an instrument, children are learning how to divide and create fractions, as well as recognise patterns and play along with the beat. Furthermore, learning and playing music requires constant reading and understanding of music. Children need to identify the notes and recognise in which pitch they need to play on their instrument, as well as how long to hold it, what finger to use and how loudly the note needs to be played. PLUS, with stringed instruments, such as the violin, viola, and cello, children need to focus additionally on their bow movements as well as their finger movements.
Music exposes you to cultural history
Children learn a variety of different music types, including classical, folk, gipsy and medieval, and they are taken through the history and evolution of music, as well as how music type changes around the world. The history of music is a whole new untapped world to a child – and it is so interesting too.
Music promotes and spreads happiness
Going back to what I said before about enriching your life and the lives of others, playing music is not only fun, but it also feels amazing when you have an audience hearing you create and play music with your instrument. When they applaud at a great performance, it can be very humbling and gratifying for a child who voluntarily plays for their community and spreads the music love to people as they listen to them play.
How can I encourage my child to pick up an instrument?
I will discuss this topic in more detail in my second article, but the first thing to do is to get an idea of what your child is into. When my children were very young, I used to play clips of all different types of instruments on YouTube and gauge their interest. At first, your child may pick them all, but the subtle differences over time will show in which instrument they share a kindred connection. For example, I always had a connection with my violin, I would go literally go nuts when I heard someone play the violin beautifully on the TV – and I was three! My youngest loves the guitar and drums and my eldest stops in his tracks when he hears piano music. If you are unsure where to start, Yamaha Music London is a fantastic retail store in the heart of London’s Soho that stocks an impressive array of instruments for your aspiring musician to discover and even try out. Yamaha Music London often holds events where expert music teachers will be at Yamaha Music London to help your child get started on their chosen instrument. You may even spot Tokio Myers, Jamie McCullum and Jools Holland, as they are ambassadors for Yamaha. I guarantee that your child will be wowed by all the instruments and music on display.
Music at home
Once your child has chosen their instrument, then it’s all about practice and perseverance. At first, it’s hard because your child will expect to know how to play their instrument from the offset, but it is important that they understand they are learning an entirely new skill, one that will shower them with rewards if they keep at it.
There are so many more benefits to learning an instrument, but if I listed them all then this article would become a novel. The bottom line is that music is a gift that should be learned and shared. Playing an instrument not only helps your child focus at school, but it will optimise their brain power, enhance their social intelligence, and allow them an outlet in which they can fully express their emotions in their own unique way.
In the next article, I will be going into further detail on how to encourage your child to pick up an instrument and take an interest in music.
Connect with Yamaha Music London and find out how you can get started on your child’s musical journey below:
*In partnership with Yamaha Music London*