Music is good for our little ones’ brains — this we know. Last year in The Journal of Neuroscience, for example, researchers reported that people who started music training before the age of seven had better and faster sensorimotor skills, as well as more connectivity in the corpus callosum (which links the brain’s two hemispheres). Other studies have shown that kids who take weekly keyboard lessons for just 15 months experience that same increase in sensorimotor and connective regions. Not surprisingly, brain regions that process sound are larger in people with musical abilities, and older adults who had even a handful of years of music training earlier in life have faster and sharper brain processing in response to sound.
When you think about the complexity of music, this makes sense. Playing an instrument requires coordinating movements of both hands simultaneously, remembering and tracking musical notes, and using precise fine motor skills — all while counting musical timing. It engages and links multiple parts of the brain, especially when kids are young and their brains are very malleable.
All this was on my mind when I signed my five-year-old up for piano lessons last year. But now that he’s been playing for a bit, my view has changed. Becoming smarter through music seems nice in theory, but for me it misses the point. Instead, in our family, I’ve seen benefits that are much more meaningful.
For one, my son now hears and enjoys music differently — even the music we listen to casually in the car. He’s learned rhythm, which intrigues me because I’ve always thought of rhythm as something innate — a biological wiring that some people have and others don’t. It’s true that researchers do see the role of nature in musicality and refer to kids being born with varying amounts of “potential for learning music” before formal training. Music and dance teachers will tell you the same — that some kids develop at different speeds even when they start at the same age. At least on one end of the spectrum, it’s known that genes play a role in musical aptitude: There’s a condition known as “amusia” in which kids can’t recognize tunes, pick out off-key notes, or differentiate between melodies even though they have normal hearing and speech abilities as well as normal exposure to music. Amusia is thought to be hereditary and stems from reduced connectivity between the auditory cortex and an important region of the right hemisphere.
In most babies and children, though, musical skills come online on a predictable timetable, and training does make a difference. Infants can detect different pitches and melodies (their hearing is already good and they’re exposed to varied sounds even before birth). Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, authors of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain write that as early as age three, some kids can tell when a note is off-key and can match their pitch to another singer. Some musically advanced three-year-olds can detect harmony between notes, but this ability becomes stronger by age six and continues to grow for years. It naturally takes time for kids to develop an “ear” for music, but kids with formal lessons have been shown to be years ahead of their non-trained peers.
When it comes to rhythm, many four-year-olds can tap a simple beat and that ability improves between the ages of four and 11 years old. Measuring rhythm in toddlers is harder (since they don’t tap on command), so one researcher recorded dancing movements of two and three-year-olds as they hopped, circled, and swayed to music. He found that the little dancers didn’t change in the tempo of their movements to match the music, suggesting that music inspires them to move (as us parents of toddlers know), but synchronizing those moves to a beat comes later. Aamodt and Wang note that a “general music aptitude” develops by about nine — an age at which you might know the overall musicality of your child.
One way researchers refer to the nature-nurture of music is with two opposite cases: musical sleepers v. sleeping musicians. Musical sleepers are people who have a natural musical ability (in tempo, pitch, rhythm, timbre, and melody perception), but haven’t been trained or maybe don’t even realize their talent. My dad once commented that, “A Mozart could be born every day … ” There are probably countless sleepers out there. On the other hand, a sleeping musician is a person whose musical abilities lag even after years of training. There are lots of ways to think about how someone becomes an expert musician, though, and no one knows for sure how it works. It could be that all kids are inherently musical — it’s just exposure and training that formalizes it, or that people with an underlying talent for music gravitate and stick with it — they were wired for music all along.
What I do know is that I love to play our family’s favorite music and watch my son sing and take a stab at counting, clapping, and dancing on the beat. Whether or not his brain is wired with more or less rhythm than the next child, I don’t know. I do know that it makes me happy when he shouts that he’s figured out that the clap in “We Will Rock You” comes on the three-count, or when he and his dad talk about plans for a keyboard and ukulele father-son duet. Lessons have made him an active music listener — which is something very special for him to enjoy.