Family Matters: Tuning children’s ears into the sound of music

Teacher playing guitar for students
Teacher playing guitar for students
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From the moment they’re born – in fact, probably even before that – children love music.

It’s an intuitive love, with more than 1,000 research studies demonstrating how music training can boost a child’s intelligence, emotional and social development and self-esteem.

This amazing power is highlighted in a new book, The Music Miracle by musician Liisa Henrikkson-Macauley, which stresses to parents of young children in particular how music training of even less than an hour a week can unlock a child’s full potential.

“Through my extensive collation of research, I discovered that the only activity proven to increase your child’s intelligence is music training, started between babyhood and seven,” said Liisa. She points out that 96% of brain growth occurs during this period.

“This is where the brain is at its sensitive development phase, and the neural connections are formed.

“I wanted to share this message so parents can find a way to help their children that’s not only fun, but makes a genuine difference.”

A mother of a six-year-old boy herself, Liisa studied 1,200 research papers into the effects of music training.

“Some of the most recent highlights include the discovery that early music learning gives babies an advantage in mental age, communication and well-being, that it develops the full-scale creativity of preschoolers and that it directly boosts their language abilities.”

A University of Toronto study in 2004 was the first to find that music training boosts children’s IQ. Six-year-olds given a year of voice or piano lessons saw a significantly larger increase in IQ than a control group. Further studies have suggested that the longer a child takes music lessons, the higher their IQ and the better their performance at school.

Liisa is keen to point out, however, that this powerful effect, thought to come from the music training helping to develop the connection between both halves of the brain, doesn’t come from children simply listening to music.

There needs to be proper training to make children understand aspects of music like rhythm, melody and notation.

“Just listening to music and expecting to get an intelligence boost is like watching athletes on TV and expecting to get fitter,” she explains.

“You have to do some work to get it but children love learning music, as long as it’s in a fun way.”

Liisa has produced Moosicology, a pack containing CDs featuring educational audio tracks, a children’s song book and a parent’s guide (available from www.moosicology.com for £47).

However, parents can also try music training on their own, playing babies songs with different time signatures and bouncing babies to the beat of a song, both shown to improve their rhythm and social skills.

Liisa said: “As simple as it may sound, learning to keep a steady beat is quite fundamental – it’s been found that only 10 to 15% of seven-year-olds have proper rhythmic skills.

“Babies will automatically bounce when they hear the beat of a rhythmic song but it does need some parental encouragement to make the most of it.”

When babies start toddling, they can be encouraged to ‘investigate’ instruments like the piano, and within a year or two they can move to different beats, clap to them and be encouraged to recognise when one pitch is higher or lower than another.

The better a child becomes at discriminating between notes, the better they become at reading, said Liisa. She explained that reading is fundamentally linked to the skill of the ear, which is why phonics is used to help children learn to read.

Although most of the brain benefits of music training occur before the age of seven, it’s still beneficial after that age, improving the memory of both adolescents and pensioners, she said.

Liisa’s passion for the educational benefits of music training stems from her own childhood in Finland.

Children don’t go to school until they’re seven but parents are encouraged to send babies, toddlers and young children to a weekly class lasting 45-60 minutes which teaches children music skills.

She points out that despite Finnish children starting school two years later than their British counterparts, Finland consistently sees students outperform the UK in maths, science and reading. She firmly believes the early focus on music is linked to this.

“The Finnish system doesn’t assume that all children want to become professional musicians, it assumes that children have the birthright to learn all these basic musical skills,” she said.

“Some may take up an instrument, some may not, but everyone has the basic music education, in a playful fashion that children like.

“It’s so fundamental for young children to learn the basic music skills. Music is a universal language, and learning it gives so many brain benefits..”

The Music Miracle is published by Earnest House, £16.99.