Written by – Ria Van Niekerk – Senior Deputy Principal of the Preparatory
Music Education has always been of primary importance at Trinityhouse. Children are introduced to playing recorders, guitars, marimbas and djembe drums from Grade One. The school boasts two choirs where good pitch and tone are essential components of the singing. We believe music training is good for the brain.
Nina Kraus, a prominent brain researcher at Northwestern University (Chicago), says that “learning music leads to changes throughout the auditory system that train musicians for listening challenges beyond music processing.” She says “music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness.”
Musicians are commonly studied for neural plasticity, which refers to the ability of learning experiences to change the brain chemically and physically. Musicians have more brain grey matter volume in areas that are important for playing an instrument and in the auditory cortex, which processes all kinds of sound. But benefits transfer to speech, language, emotion, and general auditory processing.
In general, auditory learning requires the development of sound-to-meaning relationships. This, in turn, requires attending to properties of sound such as pitch, timing and timbre and also thinking skills related to integrating sensory input and operating on it in working memory. Musicians thus have an advantage when it comes to learning the sounds of a new language.
Music training enforces a high working memory load. Increasing working memory capacity also improves the ability to think, as visible in IQ scores. Since musicians usually have greater working memory capacity, it doesn’t mean they are smarter than anybody else; but it probably does mean they are smarter than they would be if they were not musicians.
Music training also helps improve certain memory capabilities outside of music. Consider the different learning styles: auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learning. Most people are visual learners, but to be the best possible learners they need to develop all three styles. Music training should help their auditory learning style, especially under conditions where the sounds to be learned are embedded in conflicting sound stimuli, such as noisy rooms or learning a new language.
Now simply listening to a lot of music does not help the brain in the same way, for listening does not make rigorous task demands on the brain. One study of children showed that fifteen months of intense music training-induced structural changes in the primary auditory and primary motor areas. These structural changes were associated with improved auditory and motor skills, respectively. Other studies show children who are musically trained, compared with non-trained children, have a better vocabulary in their native language and a greater reading ability. Presumably, they would be better at learning other languages.
Formal studies suggest that greatest benefit occurs if training begins before age 7. The benefits also correlate with the amount of music practice. However, much remains to be learned about effects of age and duration and nature of the music training.
Nina argues for more and better music education in the early grades of schools. She believes music training may benefit academic achievement by improving learning skills and listening ability, especially in challenging listening environments.
Earlier research shows IQ in children improves when they are taught to have larger working memory capacity. Since working memory is apparently increased by music training, and music training also apparently enhances auditory learning, it seems like a no-brainer to suggest that music training is essential in Preparatory Schools. Trinityhouse supports this theory!