What role does music play in a child’s mental development? At what age should a child start to learn a musical instrument? When is it appropriate to take a child to the symphony?
Those are a few good questions that would require a master’s thesis or two to answer, but in the last couple of years, many answers have been floating near the surface.
With more new studies showing how the developmental brain is wired, society’s understanding of early childhood education is much deeper. We have known all along that some methods work; now we know better why. And in some cases our new knowledge calls for a shift in our approach to early childhood education.
The premise that a child’s brain is formed at birth is out the window. The brain is not a plug-and-play box waiting to be filled with skills, morals and facts. In the first few years of life, the neurons and dendrites which hard-wire the circuitry within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body are still making connections, tens of thousands at a time. The adult brain has in the neighborhood of 100 trillion neural connections.
These connections are determined by usage. The study that prompted this revolution in the understanding of brain development was done in the ‘70s by Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel. They found that a newborn kitten with one eye kept shut does not develop sufficient connections between that eye and the visual cortex to learn to see even after the eye is opened.
The periods for hard-wiring different areas of the brain vary. The math and logic window, for instance, is open from birth to 4 years or so. The music area of the brain is next to math, and that one stays open until age 10.
Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher at the University of California in Irvine demonstrated the relationship between math and music learning centers in an experiment that involved giving preschoolers piano and singing lessons. After eight months, they found that the children showed a dramatic improvement in spatial reasoning, compared to children not given lessons, as shown in their ability to work mazes, draw geometric figures and copy patterns of two-color blocks.
So it seems that aside from the intrinsic value of learning music for its own sake, music fires up the brain for other applications.
Music is a wide-ranging discipline that covers many facets of the human experience. Music happens in real time, so learning music requires controlled concentration and self-discipline. Playing music develops motor skills (string players who start before age 10 have more neurons going to the fingers of their left hand) and requires highly developed problem-solving skills. And for the right side of the brain, music offers an outlet for emotional expression, a raised awareness of art and beauty, and for those in organized activities, creative interaction and teamwork with peers.
Lynn Brinkmeyer, music education professor at Eastern Washington University, implies that we may be missing the psycho-motor cross-training boat for children. “We are surrounded by music - you can’t go anywhere without hearing music: supermarkets, elevators, at the movies and on television,” she says.
“From how pervasive music is in our culture, you would think that music is very important to us. But our music is made by just a few stars and we buy it. We are consumers of music; people who listen to music but don’t make it.”
Listening is very important, but to benefit most from music, a child needs to participate. Singing to newborns is effective, but rhythm games and singing with toddlers really gets those neurons firing. Anyone can do this at home - it doesn’t require a professional musician any more than it takes a professional writer to teach early language skills. For those seeking more structure for the early years, there are several local programs, such as Kindermusik, Suzuki string and piano classes and Music Together offered at Holy Names Music Center.
When children reach school age, they are in good hands. Brinkmeyer rates Spokane-area schools among the best she has seen for music education. But it still seems that music and the arts are always the first things to be cut in a budget crunch. Instrumental music in schools used to start earlier, but students in public schools currently have the option of starting a musical instrument in the fifth grade, and by that time, they are outside the learning window. The optimum learning time is past and the benefits are reduced, according to the recent research.
One place to start your children’s interest in music is at the Spokane Symphony. The symphony offers two programs each year for children, and one is coming up this weekend. This one is “The Magic Horn” and features the Magic Circle Mime Company telling the tale of a horn with magical powers while discovering lots of instruments and music along the way.
In addition to a chance to hear the orchestra onstage, there are handson activities before the concert. Children can participate in rhythm games, try out instruments, be a conductor, meet some composers and go backstage.
So, when is it appropriate to take your child to the symphony? How about Sunday at 1 p.m.?
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: “The Magic Horn,” the Spokane Symphony Family Concert with the Magic Circle Mime Co., will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Spokane Opera House. Tickets are $7, available at the symphony ticket office (624-1200), G&B; Select-a-Seat outlets or call (800) 325-SEAT.
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