From magazine racks to toy shelves, these days the claims are hard to miss: "Music boosts your toddler’s brain power!" "Studies show learning an instrument improves verbal and math skills!"
But has there really been enough credible research findings to state, definitively, that music makes kids smarter?
No. At least not yet, though plenty of scientists are working to find out.
So, should parents even bother singing "Wheels on the Bus" to their babies, dancing to Raffi with their toddlers or signing up their preschooler for that music class?
Absolutely. Chicago experts in child development and music education say music makes for a richer life in many ways, not just in improved test scores.
"There are a lot of people who have a very strong gut and observational sense that using the arts" benefits children’s cognitive development, says Erikson Institute Professor Sharon Syc. But "at this point, we don’t have specific answers. We just know there’s something going on."
She hopes the long-term research of the Dana Foundation, which has brought together cognitive neuroscientists from seven U.S. universities, will eventually find conclusive evidence. Preliminary findings released this spring found "specific links" between music training and memory, geometry and literacy. Researchers must still answer ‘the chicken or the egg’ question: does music make people smarter or are smart people simply drawn to music?
Conclusive proof would certainly help those who argue for the need to keep, or enhance, arts education in the schools. But, for parents wondering about the benefits of music, there’s no need to wait for science.
Quality of life
Music weaves through all our lives, says Roseanne Rosenthal, a professor of music education at VanderCook College of Music. Children who learn about music become adults who include music in special moments in life, "by picking music for their wedding or singing a lullaby to their own child. The ability to do those things later in life is contingent on making music that is joyful at an early age."
Children who enjoy music use it as a tool to explore their developing personalities and express themselves and their emotions safely, she says. Parents can use music as their own tool, to help change a child’s mood or release some tension.
Melanie Brown, who has taken her 14-month-old son to parent-child music classes for the past year, says she is already enjoying some tangible benefits of the power of music.
"There are songs that, if he’s having a meltdown, he immediately calms down when I sing them," she says.
The mood-altering effect of music is only enhanced when children grow older and can connect with the lyrics as well as the melody. Ted Rubenstein, the vice president of creative arts therapy for the Music Institute of Chicago, says many adolescents find music to be the only way they can express themselves.
Rubenstein gives the example of a teenager who enjoys heavy metal. "Both at a lyrical level and the sound, it was chaotic. And he says, ‘This is my life, this is me.’ "
When it comes to children with autism or other sensory integration problems, he says, music becomes an essential way to help them cope. Music, by its very nature, provides predictability and structure, which is vital for autistic children.
Once kids feel safe within the rhythms and words, Rubenstein says, he can then stretch the child to adjust to change by altering the words or changing the tempo. This can literally reintegrate neural pathways in the brain.
Erikson’s Syc says there has been convincing research showing that music helps all children focus for longer stretches of time.
"There is something in music that alters your ability to pay attention, to do things for a longer period of time, even just to sit still for a little bit longer," she says.
What to do
So, if music seems to ring a bell for your child, how do you foster it?
n Start at home and begin by singing.
"Sing, sing, sing," says Rosenthal. "A lot of parents say, ‘I can’t sing.’ Research shows us that even for parents who say they can’t sing, their children benefit so greatly. Don’t worry—it has such a positive bonding effect."
Also, play with the lyrics and tempo to keep a child’s attention: use a different word here and there, add a verse, sing the songs faster or slower or in a silly voice.
n Dance and move to music. "That’s the most natural response to music we have," says Rosenthal. "By marching or jumping to music, we gain a sense of beat and rhythm."
n Explore different ways to make music. Begin with clapping and then banging on various objects, such as a pie plate, a box or an empty milk jug. Create maracas with dry rice or beans in a plastic bottle.
n Listen to music throughout your day. Choose different genres, from reggae to classical, country to rock. "Kids like music with a beat and a fast tempo," Rosenthal says. "That permeates their preference no matter the style."
Outside the home, parents can find a dizzying variety of music classes for young children. Because these classes all do a fine job of teaching parents and kids to enjoy and move to music, Rosenthal says, parents can select a class based on what feels right to them.
For Melanie Brown, the attraction to take her son, Phineas, to a Music Together class in Lincoln Square was initially social.
"It’s a fun thing to do with him, to get out of the house and be with other parents," she says.
An artist by profession who plays in a band in her spare time, Brown says she chose Music Together because she wanted her son to love all different kinds of music. She liked how the curriculum introduces children to different patterns and tempos. But most important, she says, is that Phineas enjoys himself.
"The kids are able to experience the music however they want. If they decide to, you know, stand in a corner and dance, that’s fine," she says.
Parents shouldn’t feel pressure to drag their children to an organized class, Syc says. "I think parents worry that their child is missing out," she says. "If parents and kids enjoy some sort of structured program, then go for it. But not if you’re beating them over the head with it."
An easy way of exposing children to music is to simply go hear some together. Children’s concerts are offered all over Chicago, including the Chicago Symphony and Ravinia, Rosenthal says. Or, take them to one of your favorite outdoor concerts this summer.
However parents choose to expose their children to music, it doesn’t have to be a crash course. "Small teaspoonfuls of music," Rosenthal says, is plenty to whet a child’s appetite for a lifetime of joyous music making.
For some ideas on the best music for children, check out Fred Koch’s column in Chicago Parent’s Kid Culture. This month he features Greg & Steve’s new CD, "Jumpin’ & Jammin.’ "
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom living in Chicago.
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