How Does Studying Music Benefit Children?

A reader recently asked whether listening to music can help children with language and memory skills.  I would suggest taking this idea one step further and having your children actively engage in music rather than just listen to it.  Anyone can halfway listen to music while driving in the car, finishing their homework, or completing nearly any other task.  In fact, I am listening to music now as I write this article.  The most important difference between listening and engaging in music is the level of awareness and participation.  If a child is fully engaged with music they will likely receive more of the benefits music has to offer.

When I was growing up, my mother insisted my brothers and I participate in music in some fashion.  We were required to learn a musical instrument or join the choir.   We were given the choice of which instrument to play; however, not participating in music was not an option in our house.  Consequently, I grew up listening to my family members practicing the piano, saxophone and guitar.  They in turn, got to listen to me practicing songs on the piano and rehearsing for choir.  It wasn't until many years later that I realized how much I appreciated those music lessons.  Because music was always a part of my life I took for granted how often I used the skills I learned by singing and playing.  Only after I met friends and colleagues who had never been involved in music did I began to recognize how much of an impact it had on my life.

The study of music has many benefits, one of which is that it teaches children to listen - not distractedly, not half-heartedly - but intensely.  They must hear the difference between all the notes and chords.  They learn to recognize harmony and dissonance.  They develop the ability to tell when a note is sharp, flat or off key.  In other words, they sharpen and develop their sense of hearing.  We are born with five senses.  Great emphasis is placed upon developing speech, so why do we not give as much focus to teaching our children about taste, touch, smell and hearing?

Listening is a skill essential not only to music but one which is highly relevant for the study of language as well.  If you do not know how to listen, how will you ever pick up the subtle inflections and intonations of language and accent?  I'm sure anyone can recall an example, either in life or from a movie, where a person has spoken a language with an atrocious accent.  You may have asked yourself how can they not notice how horrible they sound?!  The answer is simple:  they cannot clearly hear how the words should be pronounced.  Studying music heightens the ability to detect subtle sounds and tones and can therefore serve a great benefit to learning the correct pronunciation and accents of languages.

Another benefit of learning music is learning rhythm.  Through the study of music students gain the ability to both recognize and create rhythm.  Some people seem to be born with a more natural sense of rhythm than others, but rhythm like any other skill is learned.  Music is a fun and entertaining way for children to learn rhythm and pattern.  Each measure is broken down into a certain number of beats and children must learn to hear and feel the beat as the music flows.  This connection to numbers and patterns has also been said to aid in the study of math.  Students of music must understand pattern, counted rhythms, fractions and decimals in order to know how many beats each note is held and how many counts are requied to finish a measure of music.  Understanding the patterns in music may expand a child's appreciation of different styles of music, such as classical music or jazz.  It may also reach beyond the music room and help your child understand a mathematical formula or the meter of a poem by teaching them how to recognize patterns - a skill learned through practice.

Music also aids in memorization skills.  In order to develop sight-reading skills students must learn the names and placement of each note on the page and also which key to strike or string to pluck in order to generate the correct note.  When singing is involved, lyrics must be practiced and committed to memory.  Often times choral songs are sung in foreign languages as well, lending directly to the development of pronunciation skills.  Even the simple action of listening to music aids with memorization.  Information is easier to retain if it is given in a rhythm or with a melody.

I spent a year abroad teaching English to primary school children in France and one of the most heavily emphasized teaching methods was the use of song in the classroom.  Putting short questions and phrases to music gave the children an easy way to recall their language skills.  And perhaps more importantly, the children were excited to learn through music.

The benefits of music are boundless.  Music is such a wonderful gift in and of itself, we should all share it with our children and with each other, listening to the radio, CD's or attending concerts together.  To fully engage and embrace the art of music nothing can substitute for active participation.  There is no better way to increase your appreciation of music than to study it first hand.  Even if you do not have professional aspirations as a musician and you prefer to play an instrument for your own pleasure or to sing only in the shower or the car you'll have a much greater personal appreciation for the art if you have a better understanding of how music is created, what the notes mean, and the overall skill and passion involved in creating beautiful music.


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