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How Music Lessons Improve Language Skills

Learning to play an instrument can help kids in school

“One of the best investments we could have made was to introduce our son, Bryant, to piano lessons at 4 years of age,” says Dallas County mom Melinda Turner.

A few years later, Bryant began taking violin and cello lessons. By second grade, he was taking music theory tests given by a local college and was able to connect with and learn from other musicians in the community. Now in seventh grade, Bryant still participates in school recitals and music festivals—while maintaining an A average in his pre-AP classes.

“Bryant grew academically and also developed self-discipline and time management skills.”

Bryant’s mom believes there is a link between his music training and his success in the classroom.

“Bryant grew academically and also developed self-discipline and time management skills,” she explains.

While there is no magic formula for success in school—and learning to play the piano isn’t a guarantee of straight A’s in your child’s future—there is evidence that music lessons can produce positive outcomes in student learning, particularly in language development.

Training the Ear

“When students sit down to play the piano, they are able to exercise their brains and also boost skills in a variety of content areas,” explains Arminta Jacobson, a certified family life educator and retired professor of psychology and family studies at the University of North Texas. She believes that music training can play a key role in building “school readiness skills” in young children.

Research bears this out—studies continue to show that learning to play an instrument at an early age impacts healthy brain development and stimulates brainpower. A 2009 study published in JNeurosci found that kids’ brains may quite literally be reshaped by musical training, leading to improved motor skills, among other outcomes.

That tickling the ivories produces more dexterous fingers is not all that surprising, but the link between music and literacy and language skills is less obvious—and scientists are still trying to figure out how and to what extent music training can impact kids’ ability to read and understand language.

The theory? It’s all about training the ear.

For example, a meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2015 revealed that music lessons increase rhyming skills—even when rhyming isn’t part of the child’s music training.

And in a study published this summer by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that learning to play the piano can help children differentiate words with similar sounds. Kindergartners who were given piano lessons three times a week for six months proved much better at distinguishing between spoken words that differed by a single consonant—even outperforming peers who were given extra reading instruction instead of music lessons.

There’s still much we don’t know about the neural mechanisms linking music and language, but teachers and parents see some practical links.

“One of the benefits of offering music at a young age is that children are introduced to new words from the lyrics of songs,” says Jennifer DeSantis, assistant director of Music Preparatory at Texas Christian University. “This helps to strengthen their vocabulary and speech.” She adds that music training can strengthen children’s memory of “sight words,” or words that our brains recognize automatically without having to decode the individual sounds. This gives kids more confidence in their reading skills.

Murphy mom Cherie Brewington can attest to these benefits. Her son Xavier started taking piano lessons in third grade, and she says the training boosted his confidence and his vocabulary.

“I noticed that Xavier’s vocabulary increased in the fifth grade because he was exposed to different composers and music literature,” Brewington reveals. “This really piqued his interest and increased his vocabulary.”

Never Too Early

Though Xavier started lessons in third grade, educators say it’s never too early to introduce music to young children. In fact, it is important to engage infants and toddlers in brain-building exercises with music.

“Babies can benefit from hearing music even before they are born,” says Cindy Griffith, education coordinator for preschool services at Region 10, which provides support and services to Dallas-Fort Worth schools. “By exposing babies to music in utero, the early brain begins to respond to sounds and rhythm as neuron connections are made.”

Once the baby is born, parents can continue to develop their child’s brain structures through music and movement classes, which have the added perk of encouraging social emotional development for infants and toddlers. This is a great opportunity for babies to bond with their parents while building positive connections through musical rhymes, songs, dance and more.

Eventually, the skills nurtured in those early music classes will show up in the classroom, Jacobson believes. “By introducing music in the early years, children will become school-ready and prepared for successful outcomes from kindergarten and beyond.”