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How Learning Music Can Enhance Kids' Brain Development

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"Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Most of us know at this point that playing Mozart for our children isn't going to make them smarter or more likely to become miniature musical prodigies. (Though I think I read something when I first got pregnant that led me to believe it would, because I vaguely remember -- I shouldn't admit this -- playing Bach for my firstborn when she was, um, in the womb.)

Here is something more believable: loads of research shows that musical training enhances kids' brains. Music lessons have been shown to improve language skills, speech, memory, attention and even the understanding of vocal emotion.

Musical training heightens people's ability to pick out specific sounds -- a harmony or melody, a voice in a crowd. This ability makes us more adept at learning languages.

Musical kids -- and we aren't assuming some are born musically talented, but rather, they become musical through training -- tend to be more sensitive to changes in speech, which makes them better at phonologic spelling, vocabulary and even at understanding the emotional meaning behind speech. This emotional intelligence piece is compelling to me, as social and emotional intelligence are foundations of happiness.

Let's get the kids signed up for music lessons! I'm thinking. But it isn't that easy, at least for us. We don't have a piano, nor do we have much time or money for lessons. (And my daughter just reminded me that she wants to play the electric guitar, not the piano. I think that involves not just instruments and lessons, but also amplifiers and other equipment.)

How will I get my kids the musical training that will enhance their brain development? Furthermore, how much training do they need? "Even kids who've had 20 minutes a day of music lessons -- which isn't a whole lot -- will, after a year, demonstrate changes in how their nervous system responds to sound, be it music or speech," says the author of a recent study on the subject, Nina Kraus, professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern.

Um, I beg to differ: 20 minutes a day of instruction seems like an eternity to me, and do you know how much that would cost?

Enter my friend Marissa, who just turned me on to ToonsTunes, a new website where kids can create music. The creators of ToonsTunes are clearly trying to solve my problem. Here is their mission: "To spread the joy of music creation to millions regardless of skill, training or economic status." They had me at joy.

My kids absolutely LOVE this website. I could definitely get them to mix music on ToonsTunes for 20 minutes or more a day -- the question is really whether or not I'll let them do it, which is only a function of whether or not we have time.

I'm hopeful that playing around on ToonsTunes will have the sort of effect on my kids' brain development that formal music training would. Honestly, I think it might work even better. Their brains are being trained musically, but there is one big difference: the kids are driving the process. This makes it infinitely more fun than practicing scales with a teacher. Creating music on the computer seems to me to be a lot more like we learn other arts: by just doing it. I was a studio art major in college, and have always thought of myself as a painter. How did I learn to paint? By drawing and painting every day, mostly alone in my bedroom or outside. The art classes I took gave me additional skills and tools and techniques, but really, I became an artist by simply painting. Creating art on my own drove my desire for formal training, not the reverse.

And so I'm hoping that my kids will learn to make music (if not actually play the piano -- I mean, the electric guitar) by actually making music.

Have you found innovative ways to give your children musical training? If so, please share!

Key Reference:
Kraus, Nina and & Bharath Chandrasekaran, "Music training for the development of auditory skills," Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, 599-605 (August 2010).

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Centerbest known for her science-based parenting advice. She is the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and she teaches an online parenting class for a global audience.

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