Music Makers: Why All Children Should Learn An Instrument

Benefits of Learning a Musical Instrument - Piano

Learning to play an instrument helps children develop important skills as well as supporting their education. We look at the benefits of learning an musical instrument, which to try and when they should start.

Unless you have a pressing ambition on your child’s behalf, they will most likely get their hands on their first musical instrument at school – the blessed recorder no doubt – that’s if you discount the Melissa & Doug percussion set they were given by that well-meaning (and childless) godparent.

For some of us, hearing our cherished offspring tooting from the third row at their first assembly is enough to confirm those fears that they have inherited grandpa’s tone deafness. But, hang on.

Research suggests that the complexity involved in practicing and performing music may help students’ cognitive development. Studies released in 2013 from the Society for Neuroscience found that music training may increase the neural connections in regions of the brain associated with creativity, decision-making, and complex memory. ‘They may improve a student’s ability to process conflicting information from many senses at once.’ It also found that starting music education early can be even more helpful.

Reported in Education Week, Gottfried Schlaug, the director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Harvard Medical School said, “It’s really hard to come up with an experience similar to that as an education intervention…

“Not only does it require attention and coordination of multiple senses, but it often triggers emotions, involves cooperation with other people, and provides immediate feedback to the student on progress. Music, on its own, has also been shown to trigger the reward area of the brain.”

In the UK, the Department for Education’s National Plan for Music Education (2011) stated that ‘Music can make a powerful contribution to the education and development of children, having benefits which range from those that are largely academic to the growth of social skills and contribution to overall development. It is a unique form of communication that can change the way pupils feel, think and act.’

Add to that research that shows a direct link between music and improved reading ability in children; and top it off with Ofsted’s claim that ‘music engages and re-engages pupils, increasing their self esteem, and maximizing their progress in education and not just in music.’ And no doubt you’re googling ‘Steinway Baby Grand’.

But, before you invest, we have picked some of the most popular instruments for early years so you can set them on the right path – at the right time.

The Piano: The instrument of choice in education writer and school founder Toby Young’s household, he says that ‘lessons are expensive and getting your child to practise every day is a chore, but… they will learn about the link between commitment, hard work, patience and achievement.’

Age: To begin with, lessons tend to see the teacher playing the piano and the child repeating the rhythm back. For this reason there’s no reason to wait until Reception year, save the fact that lessons are costly and much of what is covered before they are able to start to read music can be done at home with a keyboard.

Cost: You can pick up a second hand honky-tonk upright for £100 on ebay. Expect to pay several thousand for a good-quality piano. You also need the house room. Lessons in London are around £20 per half-hour. If buying a piano is too great a leap, check out the Take It Away scheme.

The Drums: Although the idea of having a drum kit in your home may be enough to make you reach for the Valium, remember that not all kids have an ear for tuned instruments. In fact, ‘untuned’ percussion instruments are, on the whole, fantastic for developing rhythm, sequencing, coordination and fine motor skills, and you won’t have to be subjected to London’s Burning on loop for entire afternoons. Studies have also shown a connection between music and increased scores in IQ. Rhythmic music training has been shown to make the greatest improvement.

Age: Any child who can sit and grip a drumstick can be let loose, and children as young as 18-months can be encouraged to repeat a beat.

Cost: An electronic drum kit is the order of the day if you want any kind of peace, although a full kit (ideally stowed in the garage) is better for coordination. Lessons start from around £15 for 45 mins.

Learn to play the guitar

SEE ALSO: Toys to Improve Fine Motor Skills 

The Guitar: A relatively unobtrusive instrument (unless you opt for the electric version), the guitar carries associations for us parents with rock stardom, but for kids, it’ll most likely come into their peripheral vision via Year 2 ukelele lessons which are not uncommon in state primary. It’s a social instrument, too, and being able to strum a few popular tunes at a party never hurt any kid’s reputation.

Age: Marcos D’Cruze at School of Pop suggests that children should really be in Year 2 before you spend money on guitar lessons – their hands are usually too small to stretch across the frets – and even then, they will need a ¾ size guitar.

Cost: You can buy a relatively decent 6-string number on Amazon for £50. Lessons vary but begin around £15 for 30 minutes.

The Violin: The instrument most likely to be associated with Tiger Parenting, the violin conjures images of studious solo performances by somber children in high-collared shirts. Actually it is a great instrument for encouraging concentration and control, both mentally and physically. Regular practice will greatly improve posture and concentration because children have to consider the music, finger work and correct posture combine to increase attention-span and improve focus.

Age: Usually recommended for children 7+ due to the fact that holding a violin correctly requires both physical stamina and coordination.

Cost: A child size violin (1/16 to 4/4) starts from around £50. You need a hard case to protect it. Because children generally sit to play, they will need a music stand too. Take advice from the teacher before you invest. Lesson begin around £20. 

Singing: Some children sing absentmindedly while building LEGO castles, while others refuse to join in with group singing sessions – from toddler group to preschool and the classroom – even though they know the words. Singing aloud – in public – is a great confidence builder. This is the most prevalent ‘instrument’ in infant/primary school and a large part of the national curriculum: In Year 1 pupils should be taught to: ‘use their voices expressively and creatively by singing songs and speaking chants and rhymes.’

Age: The beauty of singing is there is no coordination required so children can start when they find their voice, although reading music is extremely unusual before Reception year. You can encourage willing children by playing a wide variety of music with vocals to them, from nursery rhymes to your favourite sing-alongs on Spotify.

Cost: The cost of lessons can vary wildly, but average around £20 per hour. Group lessons or choirs are another way of letting kids get involved but at a much lower cost. 

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