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Sara Villanueva Ph.D.

Are Music Lessons Really Beneficial?

Research shows how we can make the world a better place one musician at a time.

Sara Villanueva, PhD
Source: Sara Villanueva, PhD

I live in Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World”, and this week kicks off the well-known and insanely well-attended SXSW Music Festival. Musicians and fans from all over the world descend upon our city to devour plentiful musical offerings, much like the migration of the millions of Mexican free-tailed bats that come here to feast on juicy, Texas-sized mosquitos. And because I am the devoted geek that I am, I’ve taken this opportunity to really think about music—musical training in particular, and the advantages that talented musical artists have that non-musicians just don’t. So, here’s the scoop on how those piano, guitar, and drum lessons can impact your child’s growth and development to result in some really cool benefits well into adulthood.

Musical training has become an increasingly popular topic for scientific research. Psychologists and neuroscientists alike have studied the potential benefits of music and have uncovered some interesting and informative findings. For example, recent research has indicated that having musical abilities was positively correlated with better reading abilities and phonemic awareness in children learning to read and write. What’s more, musical training has also been shown by researchers to have a positive impact on language development, performance on standardized tests (such as the SAT), and even ease the challenges faced by children with dyslexia and ADHD.

Learning to play a musical instrument requires significant cognitive effort. Think about it for a second. In a review of the most current research, Sarah Benz (2016) and her colleagues note, “Making music with an instrument requires several skills involving executive functions [of the brain]: notes have to be played in the correct sequence, with the correct duration and the right temporal distance between them.” This is no insignificant task, folks. Nadine Gaab, head of a research team at Harvard University, points out that these executive functions in the brain “allow for planned, controlled behavior” that enable us to manage our time and attention, organize our thoughts, and regulate our behavior. These are abilities that are immensely critical to success in various contexts across the lifespan.

Day Donaldson/Flickr, used with permission, Creative Commons
Source: Day Donaldson/Flickr, used with permission, Creative Commons

Along with this effort come huge benefits. Researchers have shown that learning to play an instrument induces major structural and functional changes in the brain. Scientists have also linked musical training with improvement in working and verbal memory, visual attention, intelligence, and even creativity. Musical training is simply good for your kid’s brain. There is abundant evidence that supports the idea that learning to play music can enhance cognitive performance in many ways.

There are other advantages as well. Learning to play an instrument, and subsequently performing with a group, also provides students with the opportunity to acquire seriously advantageous social and psychosocial skills. Musicians quickly learn about self-discipline and time management (practice, practice, practice!), collaboration and working together, performing in front of audiences, and being the best he/she can be for the overall good of the group. The ability to navigate the social dynamics involved in group performances can be of great heuristic value for musicians and can continue to benefit them in various social contexts throughout their lives. Some studies have even shown that that children who receive musical training in school also tend to be more civically engaged, and more culturally sensitive than children who don't. Rob Bentley,co-owner of Don’t Stop Rockin’, here in Austin, puts it this way:

“What we notice everyday and what we are most proud of as teachers is the high degree of confidence music making builds in the individual. We are constantly noticing this acquired confidence spill over into the rest of the young students lives. Music is a skill that translates across languages and cultures and one that the musician can use and improve upon throughout the entire range of a lifetime, which is why we believe music is a perfect tool to help someone grow more confidently into his or her future.”

Here is the bottom line, parents: By encouraging our children to learn about music, and supporting them in their musical endeavors, we help to make them better people. And, by creating better people, we make the world a better place. So, put your earplugs in and let them bang on those drums or squeal out those notes ‘til their heart’s content. We will all be better for it in the long run.


About the Author

Sara Villanueva, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, is the author of The Angst of Adolescence: How to Parent Your Teen and Live to Laugh About It.