Music does what medicine can’t.
My piano career culminated in a recital where I was supposed to perform a “piece”, playing the same note several times to a rhythm, that was somehow supposed to sound like a song. I sat down at the piano. Smiled at my mom in the audience. Keep calm, I thought. I’ll just lean here like this to look cool. Brummm! Don’t lean there, that is the keyboard. They forgot to cover don’t lean on the keyboard in my lessons. This isn’t going well. Ok, just nail your piece. Bing. Biinngg. Biinngg. Bing. Bong! Oh no, I managed to press the wrong key!
Music isn’t my thing. Attention isn’t my thing either. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Parents often tell me something like this, “I know my kid has a lot of energy, and he struggles to focus on one thing for very long, but he’s smart and sweet. Yeah, there are some problems at school, but I don’t want to put him on medicine.” Other times it’s, “The medication helped, but he is still struggling.” Does that sound like you?
When I hear this in my office, I recommend musical training, because music does what medicine can’t. It doesn’t just treat the symptoms of inattention and ADHD, it creates a healthier brain for a lifetime. Let’s look at the science of music and attention, and get started shaping your child’s brain through music, today!
Attention problems exist on a spectrum.
Before we look at the science of music and attention, I first want to spend a moment discussing attention itself. People don’t just have 2 categories of attention – normal attention and ADHD. Instead, people have a range of attention from amazing attention (my wife) to poor attention (me) to almost no ability to pay attention. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, and there are fewer and fewer as you approach either extreme. For some people it is a strength, and for others it is a
weakness opportunity for growth. The field of mental health has agreed on some specific criteria to help define attention problems, and they gave this group of criteria a name – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There is nothing magical about the diagnosis, the criteria, or the name. The brain doesn’t care whether you or your child has a diagnosis of ADHD; it will love that you are exposing it to music regardless.
Childhood inattention is associated with slowed maturation of certain parts of the brain.
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2011, compared brain scans over time, of 193 “typical” children with those of 197 children diagnosed with ADHD. The children with ADHD had slower maturation in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. They also found that even in “typical” children (no official diagnosis of ADHD), as symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity increased, maturation slowed. A 2012 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry looked at the brains of 257 children without an ADHD diagnosis and found similar results. The science is strong to say that children with attention problems have brains that are different, and that the main difference is in the development of the prefrontal cortex, the home of your brain’s ability to plan and resist impulses.
Playing a musical instrument is associated with more rapid maturation of those same parts of the brain.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2014 (done by the same group, which includes one of my mentors) showed that playing a musical instrument is associated with more rapid maturation within these very same areas found to mature slowly in children with attention problems. The areas that matured faster were ones responsible for emotion and impulse regulation, as well as some related areas involved in motor planning, coordination, and visual-spatial ability.
In middle school, I learned guitar to join a short-lived band named Nimbus. I was rhythm guitar, the right field of the band, just picking dandelions and adjusting my socks, hoping that the lead guitarist’s amplifier didn’t break and expose my musical ineptitude. I remember feeling like my brain was different, and like music was so much harder for me than my peers. Our brains probably were different in these areas. Is that just who we are? Or can we change our brains?
Exposing children to music training changes their brain.
So far we’ve established that people who play a musical instrument have different brains, not that playing a musical instrument changes their brains. Could the differences be explained by certain brain types choosing to play an instrument because they are naturally good at it and others choosing not to because they are naturally bad at it?
No. Giving kids musical training does change their brain. A 2009 study in the Journal of Neuroscience took kids who performed the same on testing (motor and rhythm) and had similar brain scans, and had them either do a group music class or individual weekly piano lessons. After 15 months, the children’s brains and skills had separated, with the individual piano lessons being more effective, despite spending less instruction time overall. Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2012 looked at the effect of music training on children in at risk, impoverished auditory environments. Kids who were exposed to music training through the Harmony Project, developed stronger encoding of speech and changes a child’s ability to hear in noise. Does your child with ADHD have a problem hearing in noise?
The effects are long lasting.
Playing music doesn’t just change your brain as a child, it has effects later in life too. Research shows that playing music delays age-related changes in your brain during adulthood, and a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that it is associated with decreased risk for dementia.
The saving grace of my childhood music experience was the mandatory choir participation that a Lutheran grade-school education affords you. I was OK at that, and I can belt out “Let It Go” with the best of them now. The director of our choir was amazing. Mr. Frank was too good to be teaching us. He’d play recordings of German boys choirs and say, “you could sound like that!” No, we couldn’t. But, it appears that quality instruction is one of the factors that affects these changes in the brain. Around sixth grade, my friends started moving to the other side of the choir room. They were becoming altos. We were losing good sopranos by the day. And as the number dwindled to just me and a few other male sopranos, I remember intentionally singing lower at the expense of singing well to avoid being the last guy out. That was the beginning of the end for choir. It can be tough getting your child to stick with it, so we will discuss some strategies to help keep your child interested below. Thanks to Mr. Frank, I think I am still reaping some of the benefits of this musical training experience many years later.
The effects are not limited to ADHD.
Getting your child started with music
Listen to music at home – If you can’t listen to and enjoy music, your children won’t see the fun in it. My children have developed odd taste in music – the first song my daughter ever told me she liked was “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, and one of my sons likes to go to sleep to Skrillex. It’s not the Bach that I had hoped for, but we just go with it.
Learn an instrument yourself – Set an example and model practice for them. Monkey see, monkey do. Also, monkey just pulled a curtain rod out of the wall.
Find a general music class for children under 4.
- Ask friends and check with the library or elementary school.
- Or, check out one of these programs to see if they have a class near you.
Start your child with a specific instrument around age 4-6, or if you think they are ready.
- Consider violin or piano as these are the instruments that children can start when they are young. Piano might be more useful when they are older, but violin has social benefits as your child could become involved in orchestra.
- Pick something they like because motivation and engagement appear to be vital in seeing these changes, so if they want to do guitar, encourage them. The study of the Harmony Project showed that a child’s engagement predicted better outcomes.
- Price can seem really overwhelming. An instrument would cost 100’s of dollars, right?
- Wrong, check out this guitar on Amazon. After over 1000 reviews, it gets a 4.5 star rating and costs only $69.99.
- Violins are a bit trickier, as there are some good deals to be had on Craigslist, but Amazon still has beginner setups that get reasonable reviews and include everything for under $60.
- Pianos can be found for free or cheap on Craigslist. We found this nice piano for $50 bucks and a friend found an equally nice one for free. We painted ours using this tutorial by Your Home Based Mom.
- Keyboards offer the added benefit of headphone jacks!
Find a teacher and stick with it
- As already discussed, individual piano lessons for 30 minutes led to more brain changes than group singing and drumming classes lasting 40 minutes.
- Check in with your children’s school and see what they are able to provide, or if they have any programs that your child could join.
- Find a local teacher through http://www.musicstaff.com/
- If finding somebody locally won’t work, TakeLessons.com offers online lessons from instructors for similar rates.
- If the cost seems steep, I get it. So far, my wife has been teaching our daughter. We’ve taped notes to the keyboard, and written out songs in letters for her to learn.
- Help them stick with it for 2 years or more. The Harmony Project kids started to separate from the control group at 1 year and improved more with more training. Almost all studies show greater effects with more training. If you involve the whole family, find something they are interested in, find a good teacher, and keep it fun by learning songs that they like, I think you’ve got a really good shot.
- You can support the Harmony Project by donating here.
- You can connect with music education groups like VH1 Save the Music and Music Unites
- Please share other music education groups in the comments!
Going out on a high note!
P.S. What music experiences do you remember from your childhood?