As a 7-year-old pianist, I experienced the joy of learning Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” My eyes deciphered the notes on the page, my ears guided me to depress the right keys, and my fingers translated the symbols on the page with the right speed, rhythm and expression. The benefit in my mind was the pleasure of making music. What I didn’t know was that I was wiring my brain for classroom learning.
Yet in the years since music fed my young mind and laid the groundwork for further intellectual growth, the country has steadily moved away from music instruction. Too many schoolchildren are learning without this effective discipline. Instead, the noisy national debates bounce from one “fix” to the next, whether No Child Left Behind or Common Core. Left on the cutting-room floor are music lessons — yes, music — that new research shows is essential for brain development.
Playing a musical instrument develops an important neurocognitive skill known as executive function. Strong EF is critical for the brain to operate in school and in life. Focusing on a topic, memorizing information, inhibition, cognitive flexibility and paying attention to multiple ideas simultaneously are examples of it. It is at the heart of all learning.
Acquiring these skills starts in early childhood and is crucial for healthy brain development through early adulthood. In fact, recent studies from the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital indicate that EF is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ.
The solution to weak academic performance isn’t simply standardized testing or tutoring during the elementary years and beyond. It is music performance starting in early childhood, which promotes EF skills. A study from the Boston Children’s Hospital this past summer demonstrated through MRI brain imaging that musical training promotes the development and maintenance of these abilities. Lead investigator Nadine Gaab says the brains of musically trained children display more activation and “more mature executive function networks.” This finding supports the widely held perception that music performance and academic achievement go hand in hand.
Living evidence of music’s power to turn the most underserved on to learning exists in the U.S. chapters of El Sistema, which is an intensive after-school music training program for the neediest children. Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York City and dozens of other cities have programs that have produced strong outcomes among students. Stanford Thompson, executive director of “Play on Philly,” the local El Sistema program, boasts that its students outperform peers who select academic tutoring and other afterschool programs, as measured by an independent educational assessment firm. In other major cities, similar stories of improved academic performance are emerging.
Unfortunately, these privately funded programs are all after-school initiatives that benefit a small percentage of children. Music performance happens outside of the school day because districts have not understood the positive impact it can have on academic performance.
We must change preschool and elementary education to include music performance as a core subject. Studies show that early intervention is critical to avoid widening academic gaps further down the road. Imagine including music training as a central part of the Head Start program, which serves nearly one million children annually. Preschoolers could learn how to read music and play an instrument. Music training in an ensemble could be an important part of the elementary curriculum. Students would perform better on standardized tests as they learn to process information, focus, switch mental gears and regulate thought patterns more effectively.
Resistance to change and complacency have shortchanged our children, particularly the underserved. Here is the truth: Playing an instrument wires the brain for learning. By teaching students to play music, we can increase their success in other disciplines.
It is time that we pay attention to the evidence before us and rethink education. No child should be without music. My “Für Elise” moment is available to all.
Mia Chung is a concert pianist and professor of musical studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Mia Chung, www.tallahassee.com, www.msidallas.com