Music not only gives kids great pleasure; it also helps them to be focused and disciplined as they need to practise and be persistent. They also learn how to structure their time. Essential life skills, in other words!

Many proponents go beyond the life-skill benefits. They claim music lessons actually help the development and functioning of a child's brain – especially in areas like spatial processing (the way we organise the visual world). There are a number of studies to support this.

“It seems no one in our country has gone into this,” says Professor John Rodda, a neuro-paediatrician. “My colleagues and l just know music therapy works for young patients with neurological problems such as cerebral palsy. We can see the benefits – they become calmer and manage activities better. But we don't know the neurological details of how this works or how music could benefit healthy children.”

In 2006, Canadian researchers found that four- to six-year-olds who received a year of musical training using the Suzuki method (learning by imitation rather than by reading notes) showed measurable changes in their brain responses. Compared to children who didn’t study music, their spatial processing improved as did their language skills, memory, mathematical ability and IQ.

In 2008, American researchers found that a group of children who were between the ages of eight

and 11 had had three or more years of instrumental training, outperformed a control group in tests of reasoning, fine-motor skills and the ability to distinguish different sounds.

But Jeff Robinson, a lecturer in music education, says these and other tests have involved only small numbers of children over limited periods of time. The findings sound promising, but in terms of hard research Robinson maintains “the jury’s still out on the transfer benefits of music in terms of performance in other school subjects”.

Others, including pianist and teacher Dr Liezl-Marét Jacobs, are personally convinced about music's cognitive benefits.

"It's not just that children gain confidence, discipline, patience and time-management skills,” Jacobs says. "But when you play music you look for patterns, learn to see what’s different between one section and the next and work in ‘rhythmical chunks’ that can be related to mathematical fractions.”

Emotional benefits

Regardless of the mathematical spin-offs, every child should be encouraged to develop musically simply for the emotional benefits. Music is a safe, creative outlet for energy and emotions.

The musical-emotional link seems to be forged early in human development. Babies begin to respond to music in the womb. At birth, a baby is soothed by the mother’s heartbeat and her lullabies and, in earlier times, by her rhythmic movements while walking or grinding corn with her baby strapped to her back.

The bottom line is we shouldn’t need to justify kids studying music in terms of its transfer value to areas like maths or language. In fact, if that's proven, the transfer value will simply be the icing on the cake.

Is your child musical?

There’s no fail-safe way to establish whether or not your child is predisposed to being a mini-Mozart. But if you tick most of these points, he may well be:

    • As a baby, does (or did) he rock himself or bob his head when listening to music?

    • When older, does he tap his feet or fingers or dance to the beat?

    • Does he like to sing to himself?

    • Does he learn songs easily and mostly stay in tune?

    • Can he hum or sing a note back to you quite accurately?

    • If you sing or play something and intentionally include a wrong note, does he notice?

    • Can he identify songs by their melodies and even without lyrics?

    • Does he enjoy watching others sing or play music, for example on television?

    • Does he join in or ask questions about the song or instruments used?

    • Does he express a desire to learn to sing or play an instrument?

Choosing your child’s instrument

If you want your child to stick with it, her musical instrument should be her choice. Here are some tips on finding the right fit:

    • Expose her to all kinds of music and take her to performances.

    • Ask her what she’d like to play.

    • Instruments are expensive and most can’t be borrowed or hired, so get children to try them at school or in a music shop.

    • If a child loses interest, try a different instrument (most musical knowledge is transferable) – or try a different teacher.

    • When choosing a teacher, ask for recommendations or call the music department of your nearest university. Always request a trial lesson, and watch teacher and child interact. Also discuss if you want your child to play purely for enjoyment or to do exams.

    • If your child is sure she wants to stop lessons, don’t push. Don’t live out your dreams through others.  Keep the instrument for the next generation – it will rise in value, and who knows, your child may come back to it someday.

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