by Linda Silva
Every child should learn music, but maybe not for the reasons you think.
We now know that playing music uses every part of the brain. To decode and sort what we hear, formulate a response, and then execute it—all in an instant—makes our brain spark and pop like nothing else. If we’re reading music it involves yet another layer of cognition and if we’re playing with other people there are social nuances as well. And that’s before we even get to the emotion of it, which comes from a deep and primitive part of who we are. When we play music the different parts of our brains connect to each other, and we connect to other people.
The neurology of music is an exciting field, with emerging research that tells us of music’s beneficial effects on the frontal lobe and its executive functioning (decoding, organizing, executing), the cerebellum (timing), the hippocampus (memory, discerning sounds we recognize from those we don’t), motor and sensory cortices (pressing a key), occipital lobe (reading notes), language centers (lyrics), and the amygdala (emotion).
I love reading this stuff and grasp it as best I can. What it says is that music lights up children’s brains as they grow and keeps our brains supple as they age. If the benefits of studying music could be distilled into a liquid, we’d be lined up around the block to buy a jumbo-sized bottle.
But that is not why children should learn music.
The brain is not the mind, nor is it the soul. It is a wondrously complicated organ that perceives and organizes and interprets in ways science may never completely understand, but it does not enjoy. It does not appreciate or revere. And it does not make the decision to put one note after another, combine this rhythm with that one, or add a crescendo right at the end of the third phrase. Only a musician can do that.
A musician is a whole person—not just a single organ--trained in the understanding of melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, timbre and form. It is a person who knows how to respect music’s parameters but also to find its open windows, a person who can imagine the possibilities inherent in every performance or composition.
So yes, every child should learn music. It’s good for their brains—very good—but that’s not the only reason it’s so valuable a gift. Studying music is important because it makes us people who can master a complicated skill, create something beautiful, and appreciate the mystery and rigor of art. It’s a gift we can enjoy our whole lives, either alone or with others. And it brings us into the tribe of music makers, which is just plain fun.
And if it makes us a little smarter along the way, so be it.