Most parents can agree that kids just get music, instinctively and instantly. We recognize it the first moment we successfully calm a hysterical newborn with a ballad or watch a toddler, who can barely stand, boogie to the rhythm of a song. But what else is going on in their little brains when the baby dance-a-thon in the kitchen is going strong?
A lot, it turns out. Recent studies have shown that interacting with music – as opposed to just listening to it – has the power to improve your rugrats’ abilities to understand language, do math and much more.
Recently, E. Glenn Schellenberg from the University of Toronto has shown that music lessons can boost a child’s IQ, while Krista L. Hyde from McGill University in Montreal has demonstrated how lessons can change a brain’s actual structure – even suggesting they could help children with developmental disorders. More and more, music appears to be an all-in-one workout machine in the weight room of your kid’s brain.
Now, for some, this music-as-brain-superfood thing seems like déjà vu. Remember the Mozart effect, the ’90s fad that led a generation of parents to believe that playing classical music for their children could turn them into geniuses?
“Listening will do nothing for the brain,” says Sylvain Moreno, the world-renowned neuroscientist and leading researcher at Baycrest, a cognitive neuroscience and memory research centre affiliated with the University of Toronto. “You have to be in a kind of interaction with music.”
The award-winning Moreno’s on going research into how music affects a child’s cognitive skills has so far come to one overwhelming conclusion: When children engage with music — actively play or study — their cognitive skills are strengthened.
Cognitive skills are used every day to absorb and process information — they’re our powers of memory and concentration. Are we born with them? Sure, all of us arrive with a few distinct talents, but like our body’s muscles, there’s nothing that can’t be bulked up — or, in this case, tuned up.
“Before any season in sport, there’s a training camp,” explains Moreno, “and if the athletes don’t have the training camp, they will not perform as well. It’s the same kind of idea. Music is able to improve activities in the brain.”
While these athletic analogies can make this all sound suspiciously like an unwanted New Year’s resolution, Moreno’s approach is not only unorthodox, it’s also fun and fast. Instead of instruments and lessons, his team used a far more appealing vehicle: the computer game. Called SmarterKids Training, these custom-made games introduce children to basic principles of pitch, rhythm and melody — everything from recognizing the sound of a note to identifying where it goes on a staff. Given that the kids in the study only played these games for about two hours a day for four weeks, the goal wasn’t to provide an ability to perform music. Instead, children got a chance to let their minds steep in the language and structures of music.
The effect was quick. Verbal IQ scores in the children who participated were consistently higher than before — more than 90 percent of the kids showed improvement. What’s more, a group of children who followed a regimen of games focused on visual arts concepts, such as colours and shapes, didn’t improve as much. While Moreno concedes that his studies are far from finished (and also acknowledges that the world doesn’t exactly need more computer games), there are some exciting things about where his research is pointing. For one, the notion that music can improve something as seemingly unrelated as language skills suggests remarkable things about our kids’ brains. Second, unlike the music lessons referenced by folks like Schellenberg and Hyde, games like this could potentially bring these cognitive benefits to a wider audience — kids whose parents can’t afford lessons, or for kids who don’t like them.
“This is a very important problem in education,” Moreno says, referring to the gaps in schools between the cognitive haves and have-nots that only widen over kids’ lives. As he sees it, if one has a more difficult time understanding new concepts, this has a domino effect that potentially slows down entire classrooms. It’s Moreno’s hope that programs like his will not only help balance this cognitive deficit between classmates, but that they will also help to debunk the idea of music being a lesser subject in schools.
“The arts can be an essential component of education,” he says. “And doing math for one hour is boring for a four-year-old! Singing a song is way better.”
But you don’t need customized video games or a grand piano for your child to tap into the benefits of music. It can be as simple as singing songs. “As soon as you sing with a song or dance, that’s interacting.” Moreno says. “As long as we have this loop between sensory and motor, we have a modification of the brain.”
My mind immediately jumps to thoughts of my own four-year-old daughter, Isla, in various states of dancing and singing along to everything from The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and the Rio soundtrack to LCD Soundsystem. I can see the look on her face as she anticipates certain beats with her hips or joins in on choruses: It’s half joyful abandon and half intense focus. Are these signs of my little girl’s brain being “modified?” Who knows. But Moreno is definitely right about one thing – it’s a lot more fun than math.
What do kids love about music? We chatted with the kids on the set of our music and fashion feature and here’s what they said:
“I just like music very much.” —Amiya, age 3
“I like to do rock and rolling out, and then get a drink of water and then go back to rock and rolling out.” —Kes, age 6
“I like to listen to my stereo.” —Gavin, age 5
“La la la!” —James, age 18 months
“I like rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop. It makes me feel happy and good and excited.” —Dayton, age 6