Will music make my baby smarter?

“I want to make good citizens,” Shin’ichi Suzuki, Japanese violinist and pioneer of the Suzuki method of violin instruction, famously said. “If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”

It turns out that the metaphorical heart may not be the only part to benefit from music. Numerous studies suggest that, in the process of learning to play a musical instrument, children experience changes in the brain that strengthen a range of auditory skills—and that these sharpened skills may last beyond childhood. One study ties beat-keeping, a rudimentary music skill, with readiness to read, and another notes the benefits of music for at-risk children.

Much of the research in this area has been conducted at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory under the guidance of Professor Nina Kraus and colleagues. Collectively, these studies indicate that the process of learning music “fundamentally shapes” the brain.

“To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections,” Kraus explains in a New York Times article. “Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”

These abilities translate to other areas of children’s learning: reading, writing, and communicating. Music has been accepted as supporting math education for years; now, it seems the benefits can be felt in the language arts, as well. But don’t dust off those “Baby Einstein” videos quite yet—this research in no way suggests that passive listening develops auditory skills or brain function. Similarly, don’t expect “Little Einsteins” television show to make your child a better listener or a more skilled musician—even if it does bill itself as a cartoon music education program. The show’s best defense isn’t that it develops musical skills, but that it stimulates children’s curiosity and interest in making music.

Thousands of years have passed since ancient Greek philosopher Plato recognized the importance of music education: “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy. But most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” Yet the message isn’t always coming through, as demonstrated by the removal of music education from schools across the country. According to Kraus and colleagues, the findings of their research make a powerful argument for the benefits of music education on brain growth and development.

Last updated October 18, 2020

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