Anytime a school board starts discussing budget cuts, the knife is typically aimed at “inessential” programs in schools, a category that usually will begin with the arts. Unlike math, science, and history, curricula for art, music, and drama are considered somewhere between extracurricular and useless by budget cutters in many national, state, and local governments.
But spend 10 minutes with a child of any age who is singing or playing an instrument, and it’s quickly apparent that something a lot more serious than playtime is going on here. “When children learn music it exercises both sides of their brain,” says Mary Ann Cool, a music teacher and chorus director at Mt. Hebron Middle School in Montclair. “Music exercises the right side of the brain responsible for imagination, arts awareness and creativity, and the left side responsible for reasoning, number skills and speech. It’s a discipline that teaches children to focus on a task and master it. It is no surprise children who study music tend to have higher test scores.”
Just as we understand that kids playing sport teaches more than how to score a touchdown (e.g., cooperation, commitment, how to win/lose well, etc.), kids playing music are doing more than trying to be the next Green Day. In other words, some children can internalize more math by moving from a 4/4 to 3/4 time signature than by memorizing a handful of equations.
Leslie Lucas, who is the director of Music Together of Montclair and Summit & Chatham, believes that keeping music in the curriculum benefits everyone down the line. “In his State of the Union speech, the President was talking about how far behind in math and science our country is,” she says. As music and art are taken out of education, “it creates people who don’t know how to use their creative brains. So much of business is about creativity, and if you have been exposed to music, it stimulates your creative brain. In any discipline, thinking creatively can start with music education.”
So if there’s less music in school, what can parents do to make sure their children are thinking musically? The simplest thing is to make family time for music: sing along to your favorite songs with your child, play an instrument for them if you know how, or just sit down and make up songs together. “If we passively put on some music, they won’t learn as well as making the music themselves,” says Lucas. “Sing a song about brushing their teeth…or buy a little drum or some shakers, something so you can sit and make music together. Have a little jam session!”
Every child can get basic benefits from this kind of family-based exposure to music, and over time parents can be on the lookout for signs that a child has a particular interest in or talent for music. “I think when children independently are drawn to an instrument or independently like to sing, that shows an interest to be encouraged,” says Cool. “I also think some children naturally have a musical ear: They are able to follow melodies and sing them back accurately.” Lucas adds that a child around age 5 who can accurately find the beat in a song is showing signs of being musically adept.
But the best sign that you’ve got a child with an interest in playing music is fairly direct: “If someone really has a musical inclination, they’ll usually tell their parents,” says Lucas. “They’ll ask for piano lessons or something like that. I find that you will know if the child is ready for formal lessons.”
The best thing for parents to do is just make sure music is part of a child’s life in one way or another. A pre-verbal baby who sings along with a simple tune to nonsense “doo doo doo” lyrics and claps to the beat is learning essential skills that can carry over to so many other aspects of their educational and social lives. And older children who can make up a song or learn to master an instrument will be tapping into a valuable tradition that dates back to the earliest days of humanity. “In the old days before TVs, people would sit around and make music together,” says Lucas. “It was a basic life skill, everyone knew how to make some music, play some songs as enjoyment. It’s something everyone should know how to do.”
How are you making music a part of your child’s life? And is your child’s school doing enough to provide basic musical education?