Benefits of musical practice

Learning a musical instrument is beneficial in more ways than one ... Photo: Getty Images

The recorder is an instrument capable of producing a pleasant melody when played well. But as a parent, you’re more likely to identify with its headache-inducing qualities, given its tendency to end up in the hands of small children. And these off-pitch trills might only be the beginning of your pain as screeching violins and squawking clarinets are thrown into the mix.

But as testing as a musician in training may be, it could all be worth it, as musical practice can play an important role in your child’s development.

“Every day I see evidence of how music impacts on the development of children, including increased confidence and self esteem and improvements in memory, self-discipline, coordination, literacy, concentration and grades,” says Jenny Wilkinson, Director of the Australian Institute of Music and Child Development.

Wilkinson explains that the likely reason for this is because music has a unique ability to stimulate the creative and practical sides of the brain simultaneously.

While the Mozart Effect, where listening to Mozart was claimed to improve cognitive skills, has been debunked in a number of studies, significant research evidence shows that playing a musical instrument positively influences cognition and development in kids.

For instance, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that children who began playing an instrument had improved fine motor skills and a greater ability to distinguish between different melodies and rhythms when compared to children who didn’t practice music.

As part of this research, MRI brain scans were used prior to the study to determine whether differences in brain structure between the two groups of kids could explain the results, but no significant differences were found. This suggests that children don’t necessarily need innate musical ability to benefit from playing an instrument.

“I believe that all children can benefit from practising music regardless of their musical talent,” says Wilkinson. “There is some form of music that every child will love, and when you think of all the positives of music, it is very clear that all children will reap rewards from being involved,” she says.

The idea that all children can benefit from music is reinforced by a study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in 2009. This research found that children who were previously non-musical had improved reading skills after a six month period of musical training. So irrespective of whether you think your child could be the next Carlos Santana, it’s a good idea to encourage them to take up an instrument.

One of the most important things however is to make music fun and enjoyable. With this in mind, Wilkinson stresses that personality is a key consideration when helping a child select an instrument. She explains that the guitar, for instance, can be a very social instrument, and similarly, the violin, drums and saxophone generally rely on other instruments for a performance. An instrument such as the piano on the other hand can be completely self-contained. “Drums are probably not suited to an introverted child whereas the piano would be perfect,” she says. 

While solitary musical practice may suit some children, recent research suggests that playing music as part of a group can help children develop empathy, as they are required to tune in to others’ physical and emotional states.

Wilkinson supports the idea of group practice, stating that class attendance can help children learn the important social skills of sharing, taking turns and listening to others.

So while having a novice musician in the house may be enough to put you off hot cross buns forever, supporting and encouraging your child’s musical pursuits could help them develop important skills, some of which they can carry for life. By practicing music, you child will also receive physical and emotional stimulation and importantly strengthen their developing brain. And with a bit of luck, they’ll be entertaining you with sweet symphonies in no time.