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  • Jo-Anne Ebensteiner

300 Keyboards Hit High Notes with Elementary Students

You know that feeling when your favorite song comes on and you can't help but start tapping your foot or bobbing your head? Well, it turns out music does a whole lot more than just put us in a good mood. For school kids, having musical instruments and arts education in their lives can provide a major intellectual and social boost at a critical age.

Often first on the chopping block when budgets grow lean, music education in American schools has been a tenuous one. Yet numerous studies show that playing an instrument gives kids' brains a serious workout. A 2014 study from Northwestern University revealed that in as little as two years, kids who learned to play a musical instrument experienced biological brain changes that made it easier for sound to get into the brain and lead to better neural processing. Other research from the University of Southern California found music instruction helped grow critical brain areas involved with reading ability, language development, speech perception, and brain memory. "Music really is a work-out for young minds," noted Dr. John Iversen, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Diego. "The act of learning music and performing coordinates movements, hearing, vision, and memory in real time, creating new neural pathways in the brain."


All those new neural connections pay off academically too. According to research from The University of Kansas, kids who take music lessons tend to have higher grade point averages and score significantly better on standardized tests in math, science, and reading comprehension compared to their non-musical peers. A separate study tracking over 25,000 students found that music participation, with both instrument instruction and ensemble work, had a powerful effect and led to significantly higher scores on algebra, English, and biology coursework.

Psychologists theorize the focus, memorization, and problem-solving skills required to play an instrument boost cognitive development and prime kids for classroom success. After the pandemic, experts note that standardized math and reading test scores across the country fell to levels from the last century. “Improving academic achievement is more critical than ever,” said Ellen Goodman, director for The Foundation for PSUSD. “The arts can help us. We need creativity to help regain lost ground.”


Classroom lessons, band, orchestra, and choir also provide students with invaluable opportunities to develop teamwork, communication, and leadership abilities. Music is an inherently social activity, requiring coordination and collaboration.

A Swiss study found that just nine months of weekly music instruction improved kids' abilities to perceive and understand others' thoughts and feelings. And alternating roles of soloist and accompaniment in musical groups helps build crucial skills like tolerating criticism, delaying self-gratification, and considering group dynamics.

"The life lessons and social bonds built through music extend far beyond the practice room and performances," added Goodman.


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