Miles Tisserand bounces into his Kindermusik class with his dad in tow, digging in his purple music bag to extract a homemade instrument before his jacket even comes off. The 5-year-old holds up his butter tub-turned-shaker and beams.
"It's full of Mardi Gras beads," he says, giving it a shake for good measure.
Miles slips off his sneakers and joins the rest of the 4- and 5-year-olds in a circle on the carpet. The six children clutch their creations-a drum, a rain stick and more shakers among them-and take turns telling the group how they made them.
Allison Ashley listens carefully to each presentation, then asks whether each of the instruments sound like rain, wind or thunder. Determining that they have enough tools for a full-blown thunderstorm, she weaves a story about a rainy day at the playground, leaving plenty of opportunities to insert sound effects. The kids chime in with enthusiasm.
"The class is a social experience," Ashley says. "I try to take ideas from the kids, so I'm more of a facilitator. And they get ideas from one another, which is good for their self-esteem, creativity and problem solving."
Social skills aren't the only benefits kids glean from taking music lessons early on. The so-called "Mozart effect" may be in question these days, but the advantages of real interaction with music-not just passive listening-never were. Research shows that young children who are provided with music instruction score higher on tests of spatial abilities and arithmetic, not to mention the lessons they learn in discipline, confidence and problem solving.
What the experts say
Frances Rauscher, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, has concentrated her 14 years of research in music and cognition on the 3- to 10-year-old set. One particular study from her ongoing research took low-income preschoolers and put them in carefully structured weekly piano lessons. After two years, they tested the kids on spatial reasoning tasks-such as assembling known objects like dogs and parrots from cardboard cutouts-and compared the results to control groups who received weekly computer instruction or no extra lessons.
What Rauscher found in the piano students was a significant increase in their ability to perform on these tests. They increased their scores 30 to 33 percent more than the control groups, and the effects lasted at least two years.
Fancy terminology aside, spatial reasoning is a skill that people use every day. When you rotate a bulky arm chair to fit it through a narrow doorway, that's a spatial-temporal task. So is packing suitcases into a trunk, rearranging the refrigerator to squeeze in new groceries or shifting piles of kid-sized sweaters to fit your child's freshly laundered clothes into a drawer.
"A spatial reasoning test requires the child to imagine an object in the absence of a physical model and spatially configure the pieces over time to create it," Rauscher says. "In a way that's what we're doing when we make music."
This connection between music and spatial reasoning offers at least one piece of the explanation for the rising test scores in the piano group. According to Rauscher, if you play middle C and G together you'll get a "wider" sound than when you play C and E. Because kids can experience this correlation in a tangible way, it forges a link between the visual, audio and spatial reasoning centers of the brain.
This translates to an intrinsic understanding of space and time and gives a basis for understanding math concepts such as proportions and fractions. The grouping of notes into measures and measures into phrases also gives kids a sense of ordering and repetition that comes in handy when concepts such as addition and multiplication come up in math.
"We study chords, scales, the structure and language of music," says Julie Lovison of the piano lessons she teaches at Lake Shore Music Studio in Old Town. "It's the flow that you have to keep track of in your mind. You have to retain a memory of what just happened and put it in the context of what's coming up, which is something that can help in math class."
And although there are still questions as to how it happens, Rauscher says she believes that learning to play and read music has a measurable physical effect on the brain.
"Children are born with basically all the neuron cells that they'll have in their lifetime, but music is strengthening the synaptic connections," she says. "Making music is actually changing the physical structure of the brain."
Rauscher hopes the effects of music on the brain are long-lasting, but she doesn't yet know what happens to kids more than two years down the road if music lessons are phased out of their routines. Her research does show, however, that when a child starts before age 7, her test scores are likely to rise for about two years, then plateau whether the lessons continue or not. If they start after second grade, there is no measurable effect brain-wise. Rauscher allows for the possibility, too, that music lessons give kids a boost in the short term, but that other kids will catch up later on.
One certainty in the research data is that quality instruction is a must. That means an enthusiastic, qualified teacher moving among a small group of students in an adequate space. Put more than 10 students in a class with a single teacher and no helpers and the positive effects drop fast. Teaching kids to read music adds a distinct benefit as well.
"When they're reading music, they're translating knowledge into sound into physical motor activities," Rauscher says. "It's a whole brain activity."
Putting it in practice
Outside of the research arena, real teachers like Ashley weave these concepts into their lessons every day. After teaching Kindermusik classes for 18 years, Ashley can rattle off a list of how music education benefits kids. Every week, she transforms a bland classroom in Northwestern University's Music Administration Building in Evanston into a kid-friendly area with a floor rug, kid-sized stools and a plethora of instruments and joyfully tackles the task of instructing boisterous 4- and 5-year-olds. Since kid participation is a fundamental component, Ashley's classes are known to be consistently engaging, occasionally noisy and always entertaining.
Programs like Kindermusik are specifically structured to help kids develop skills in everything from sequencing to memory. When Ashley's students clap out rhythms from flash cards, they're learning to keep time and follow a string of commands. When they are given instruments to play together as a group, they learn to pay attention to what they're doing as well as what's going on in the rest of the class. Concepts stick because they're using multiple senses and different parts of their brains, a detail that Ashley makes sure to point out to the kids.
"We're teaching concepts with the whole body," she says. "We're singing it, saying it, moving it. It really celebrates the different kinds of learners we have."
And the kicker is that the kids don't even realize they're learning. They just think they're having fun.
Getting Mom and Dad in on the fun
Fifteen minutes before the end of Ashley's class, Michael Tisserand heads back into the classroom with the rest of the Kindermusik parents. He takes off his shoes and joins Miles on the rug, shaking rattles and jumping around with a zeal that matches that of the kindergartners.
Tisserand is a veteran of the program. When their family moved to Evanston from New Orleans after the hurricane, a Kindermusik program was one of the first things they sought out.
"We have some activities that we go back and forth on whether we really need to do them, but Kindermusik is never on that bubble," he says. "This seems like a necessary thing for their development, not just something extra that we do."
Their dedication to exposing the kids to music has not gone unrewarded. Tisserand's 8-year-old daughter went all the way through the Kindermusik program before moving on to piano lessons. Miles also has his sights set on starting an instrument once he completes Kindermusik. And while Tisserand encourages a love of music for its own sake, the academic benefits aren't lost on him.
"Miles loves math and we're always finding connections between music and math," he says.
Although Rauscher's years of research point towards the brain benefits of music, she still believes that a life-long appreciation of music and the personal pleasure that it can bring far outweigh the extra percentage points it might equal on a spatial reasoning test.
"We need to justify music education for its own sake," she says. "The fact that there are these extra-musical effects is sort of icing on the cake."
According to Kindermusik teacher Allison Ashley, a child's parents are her best resources when it comes to music. Even parents who can't tell a Mozart from a Chopin or a clarinet from an oboe can nurture a love of music in their kids. The following tips from Ashley provide some simple ways even the busiest of parents can make music an integral part of their home.
Be aware of sounds around you. Take walks around the neighborhood and listen for familiar sounds in your environment. Point out bird calls, rustling trees and tinkling windchimes.
Provide a soundtrack for playtime. Check out a variety of music from the library (classical, jazz, world music, etc.) to test out different kinds that your family might enjoy. If the music has words, encourage kids to sing along with you.
Have instruments around the house. Suggestions include a drum, something that makes a long sound (like a triangle) and something that makes a short sound (like a wood block). Supplement these with homemade instruments such as shakers made from paper towel tubes filled with popcorn kernels.
Play echo or pattern games. Using your voice or an instrument, sing a phrase or play a few notes and let the child repeat it back to you. Then switch roles.
Attend live music performances. If it's a fun experience, the child is more likely to want to go again, so don't feel like you have to stay until your antsy child has a meltdown. If 20 minutes is all they can handle, just sneak out quietly between songs.
Katie Holland is a junior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a Chicago Parent intern.