Pythagoras might have been speaking for numerous others when he said that he found music in the spacings between the planets and geometry in the sounds of strings. Plato wrote of harmonies in mathematics and how they parallel harmony in a just society. Confucius also found numerous eternal truths in the unfolding of pieces of music.
These ancient philosophers grasped truths about the interconnectedness of music and mathematics that have become even more clear over the centuries.
Here are only a few insights, based on the experiences of musicians and mathematicians, about this close relationship:
1. Activation of analogous skills
Music students, when tested, tend to show more skill in mathematics than their non-musical peers. High levels of cognitive processing ability and executive function—which involves self-regulation and self-management in order to achieve a goal—are essential for success in both fields.
Research also supports the notion that executive function, even more so than overall intelligence, has been shown to influence academic achievement. Learning math ties into the development of executive function by calling on a child to analyze, identify key concepts, and proceed through a series of logical steps. Likewise, learning to play a musical instrument enhances this capacity by, among other factors, drawing on the ability to calibrate motor movements in response to changes of time signature and key.
2. A beautiful symmetry
Some mathematicians explain their field by focusing on how they work to extract the essential elements of any given thing and study the characteristics and interactions of those elements on an abstract plane. This type of learning can help students to understand music and can lead to a deeper engagement with the essential elements of a musical composition.
Music can inspire students to learn more about mathematics through studying, for example, the properties and manifestations of sound. Innovative mathematics teachers have even brought opera singers into their classrooms to show students how the patterns of mathematics are part of the essence of music.
3. Simplicity within complexity
Every note a composer writes or a musician plays is involved in an intricate web of harmony, rhythm, and mathematical patterns.
These patterns tend to be built around elements of symmetry. For example, just as the shapes of regular geometric figures remain the same when rotated, a musical tune can be transposed to another key in a composition such as a fugue.
In a Mandelbrot set, a famous fractal, a smaller replica of the entire patterned set can always be found hidden at the core of any other image in the set. So, we might also say that a musical fractal occurs when one theme harmonizes with a slower version of itself. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, showcased a talent for repeating his themes numerous times throughout a variety of permutations.
4. A composition made possible by math
In fact, thanks to an extraordinary mathematical insight, Bach had the tools he needed to compose The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722. The piece consists of a set of masterful preludes and fugues, one in each of the major and minor keys.
But Bach could not have created this much-loved work without mathematics. In 1636, the French monk and mathematician Marin Mersenne successfully solved a difficult problem by deriving the twelfth root of the number 2, thus paving the way for the division of the octave into 12 equal semitones.
Before this division and the associated method of equal temperament of musical instruments, pieces transposed into new keys often sounded uneven and unpleasing. But after Mersenne’s achievement, musicians were able to work with a 12-part octave, evenly spaced and divided into ratios. They could then write music in every key and transpose easily from one key to another. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was the first noteworthy example of this musical revolution.
5. How math determines pitch
A discussion of pitch is only one way to demonstrate how math undergirds sound.
Pitch is based on wave frequencies. All audible sounds are produced by changes in the air pressure of the pockets surrounding a sound wave. The frequency that hits the human ear translates into the perceived pitch. Each note possesses its own individual frequency.
For an example of sound waves in action, think of a train whistle. Notice that the sound seems higher-pitched as the train approaches. But after the train goes by, the sound seems lower. As the train speeds toward the listener, the forward movement compresses the arriving air pockets against each other, thus pushing them forward more frequently. As a result, the sound seems higher-pitched. Then as the train recedes into the distance, the air pockets slow in their arrival to the ear, giving a lower pitch.
We perceive the most pleasant-sounding chords when we combine notes with sound waves that reverberate in analogous patterns. The mathematical ratios of the intervals between notes give the means of calculating which note combinations produce harmony and which create discord.
Frequency is measured in terms of hertz, and notes with higher pitch have a higher frequency. Middle C has a frequency of approximately 262 hertz. This means that, when middle C sounds on a piano, the sound waves that reach a listener’s ear consist of 262 pockets of higher air pressure striking against the ear every second. As a comparison, the E just above middle C sounds at approximately 329.63 hertz.
Building an understanding of the physics and mathematics behind pitch also leads students to a fuller understanding of octaves, chords, and other musical elements.
6. Pairing music and math in the classroom
When teaching music in the classroom, teachers can incorporate math in a multitude of ways. One is to ask older children to identify the parts of a musical pattern, then to restate the rule governing that pattern. They can go on to use their analysis of patterns to make predictions about the future direction of a composition. An exploration of time signatures and chords can also be the basis for lessons in how math and music work together.
Before younger children even learn the formal concepts of mathematics, they learn through experience about rhythm, repetition, and proportional relationships among musical concepts. They can clap out the syllables of their names, and then see if they can match the number of syllables in their own names to those in other students’ names. They can also echo their teacher, with voice or movement, as he or she calls out and varies notes, beats, and tempos.
When teaching music to young children, educators and parents today can choose from a wide range of colorful, fun, and fascinating picture books that will enhance their lesson plans. Here are only a few of the best books for preschoolers and early elementary students that offer lilting texts and multi-layered pictures to help to convey the joy found in music.
1. Music, Music for Everyone
2. My Family Plays Music
My Family Plays Music, written by Judy Cox and illustrated by Elbrite Brown, showcases the lives of an entire family of musicians in bright and lively cut-paper pictures. Educators have praised the book as a first introduction to the range of musical instruments children can play. Published by Holiday House, it received a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent Illustrator after its original publication in 2003.
The heroine of the story practices making music with a variety of instruments alongside different members of her family. She tries out the triangle with her father and his string quartet, joins her aunt’s jazz band playing the woodblock, and more.
3. Kat Writes a Song
Kat Writes a Song, written and illustrated by Greg Foley, is a story of inspiration, creativity, and the ability of music to brighten anyone’s day. Published by the Little Simon imprint in 2018, the book stars Kat, a kitten who is feeling down and lonely on a rainy day. She writes and sings a song, and finds the clouds and rain going away. But the magic really begins when she decides to share her song to lift the spirits of her friends and others in the neighborhood.
4. Barnyard Boogie!
5. Music Class Today!
Part of the Music for Aardvarks series, Music Class Today! was written by David Weinstone and illustrated by Vin Vogel. Published in 2015 by Farrar Straus Giroux, Music Class Today! is the simple story of a music class, one shy student, and how to find the inner strength to try new experiences. The lively text and illustrations bring the excitement of making music as a group to life.
In addition to his work as a picture book author, Weinstone created the imagination-fueled Music for Aardvarks CDs and classes for young children.
6. Miguel and the Grand Harmony
The making of Miguel and the Grand Harmony brought together Newbery Award-winning writer Matt de la Peña and Pixar artist Ana Ramírez to create an original work of art based on characters from the beloved movie Coco. The book, published by Disney Press in 2017, tells the story of Miguel. Prohibited from making music, the young boy practices on his homemade guitar in secret. He gets help from the spirit of La Música, who creates the right sequence of circumstances that will allow his dream to come true.
The book’s rich illustrations celebrate music’s ability to be a creative force that enhances life’s journey.
7. Geraldine, the Music Mouse
8. Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin
And finally, there is Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. The now-classic picture story treatment of the instruments of the orchestra was written by Lloyd Moss, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, and published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in 1995.
This Caldecott Honor book spotlights the distinctive voices of 10 different instruments in catchy and musically rhyming words set amidst a swirl of saturated pinks, golds, and other colors. It also serves as a counting book, as one by one the instruments and their musicians take the stage.
Across the world, dedicated musicians have helped nurture the talents of new generations of young performers in the classical tradition through a variety of youth symphony orchestra experiences. These organizations, regardless of their location, share a set of common goals: to train young men and women in the rigors of musical interpretation while helping them develop vital life skills such as cooperation, self-discipline, goal-setting, and professionalism.
Here are summaries of the histories and work of only a few of the world’s many youth orchestras active today:
1. The Children’s Orchestra Society
In 1962, Dr. Hiao-Tsiun Ma established the Children’s Orchestra Society (COS) as a means of teaching children to appreciate and perform music, and to understand the values of collaboration and teamwork. Since then, the New York-based nonprofit organization has transformed the lives of numerous young people by helping them gain skills in musicianship and performance that have had lasting positive effects on their lives. Thanks to the training COS offers, young musicians can perform at high levels as members of groups dedicated to classical and chamber music, and play alongside established adult performers.
The COS continues to operate under the principles of its founder. Dr. Ma, a musicologist and teacher in his native China and in the West, was the father of world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and of Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, who currently heads the COS. The society’s child-centered philosophy aims to provide a supportive environment optimized for the unfolding of each student’s own innate musical gifts, with parts written specifically to enhance individual competencies.
2. The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra
The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra was founded in 1999. Originally funded with grant monies from the local Jewish Community Federation, the organization—then known as the Los Angeles Jewish Youth Orchestra—focused on Jewish-themed liturgical and other music. Its mission soon widened to include performance of the full range of music from the world’s musical heritage, both classical and contemporary.
Under the leadership of composer and music director Russell Steinberg, who arranged several symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn and created original compositions specifically for the group, its musicians’ talents blossomed.
As its repertoire grew and diversified, so did the orchestra’s membership. By 2003, its performers included some five dozen students from a variety of backgrounds and representing about 50 Los Angeles-area high schools. In acknowledgement of this broader focus, that year Steinberg renamed the group the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. In 2008, the group earned official nonprofit status.
Since its debut, the LAYO has hosted West Coast and world premieres of a number of original compositions. Its schedule includes regular public performances, and it has planned a 2019 Argentina Tour, in which its members will perform four concerts in Buenos Aires, including an outreach concert in one of the city’s most poverty-stricken communities.
3. Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras
The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras has served the community as a nonprofit group providing music and performance education since 1946. Today, CYSO works with hundreds of young people from the primary grades through high school. These youth take part in a variety of ensembles including four full-scale orchestras, several string orchestras, jazz and steel orchestras, and chamber music groups.
Prominent Chicagoland professional musicians serve as teachers and mentors to the youth as they train to present major performances. Former CYSO participants have gone on to distinguished careers in music and other fields. Many today perform in well-known orchestras and other ensembles around the world, while others have used the skills they learned with CYSO to become lawyers, physicians, and community leaders.
Thanks to CYSO’s Community Partnership Programs, more than 8,000 young people have had the opportunity to gain musical training through neighborhood-based groups and through other venues over the course of the 2017-2018 season. These programs focus particularly on serving youth in under-resourced parts of the community, with the goal of making a strong music education a core part of the life of every Chicagoan.
4. The New York Youth Symphony
The New York Youth Symphony was founded in 1963 to highlight the talents of young people ages 12 to 22. Today, after winning numerous awards and earning praise as one of the most prestigious of the world’s youth orchestras, the symphony continues its program of preparing young people for careers in music, and for becoming lifelong students of—and advocates for—the art.
Over the half-century and more of its existence, the New York Youth Symphony has benefited from the guidance of world-renowned music directors. It has also served as the training ground for some of today’s most in-demand composers and performers, and has for almost 35 years actively commissioned new compositions from young musicians themselves.
5. The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura
In Paraguay, young people with few material resources have established themselves as a remarkable orchestra playing exquisite music on instruments made from garbage. The 2016 documentary film Landfill Harmonic takes viewers inside the creation of this extraordinary youth orchestra, founded by renowned maestro Luis Szaran and led by music director Favio Chavez for the benefit of the children living in the slum of Cateura, Paraguay.
The orchestra has thrived thanks to the dedication of Szaran, Chavez, and a local recycler whose family has sustained itself by collecting and recycling trash. Now, the area’s youth have become skilled musicians playing violins, double bass, wind instruments, and more, all made from scrap metal, old barrels, discarded spoons and buttons, and other trash. And Szaran’s organization, Sonidos de la Tierra, or “Sounds of the Earth,” continues as an instrument workshop and worldwide musical touring ensemble supporting the orchestra.
While numerous examples of lively, well-crafted contemporary music composed especially for children exist, educators and parents also have at their disposal a wide range of classical compositions that can foster a love of music. While not written specifically for young people, a variety of individual short works—and movements or pieces of longer works—from the classical repertoire have proven over the years to be as enticing for kids as they are for adults.
These works include pieces by composers ranging from the towering, august Ludwig van Beethoven to popular 20th-century masters such as Aaron Copland. However, as diverse as these composers are, their compositions all feature strong melodic lines and rich tonality that can paint colorful stories across the canvas of a young listener’s mind.
The following are a few suggestions for album collections, composers, and individual recordings that can enrich any child’s musical education:
1. Beethoven Lives Upstairs
Beethoven Lives Upstairs is only one in the Classical Kids series of CDs and DVDs showcasing child-friendly pieces by great composers while emphasizing that these artists were also real-life human beings. This particular recording offers movements from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor and Symphony No. 7 in A major, as well as pieces such as the composer’s Flute Serenade (Opus 23) and his popular piano composition Für Elise.
The children’s media review organization Common Sense Media has praised this series as particularly suitable for kids ages 5 and up. The website’s review of the video version of Beethoven Lives Upstairs notes the vividness and accessibility with which it portrays the composer’s complex personality and depth of artistic expression.
2. Classical Wonderland - Classical Music for Children
The album Classical Wonderland - Classical Music for Children, produced by Sony Music, offers a compilation of 11 recordings by various artists. Selections range from staples of the classical repertoire such as “The Flight of the Bumblebee” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan to “The Swan,” one of the creatures portrayed in The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. The former piece depicts the antics of the prince when he disguises himself as a bee, while the latter paints a musical portrait of one of nature’s most graceful and elegant creatures.
3. My First Tchaikovsky Album
Available online at the Met Opera Shop and in other venues, My First Tchaikovsky Album, from Naxos Records, offers kids some of their favorite melodies from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite and excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and other works. A companion recording, My First Mozart Album, similarly extracts some of the most listenable tunes from that composer’s oeuvre.
Naxos also offers kids My First Classical Album, featuring 21 Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms, Slavonic Dances by Antonín Dvořák, and Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.
4. Stories in Music
The Stories in Music series, produced and sold by the music education company Maestro Classics, aims to make learning about great music even more fun through highlighting the entertaining tales its rhythms and beats tell. In albums of recorded music performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Classics offers retellings of works with extra-high kid appeal, such as the rollicking magical hijinks of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas and Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.
The genesis for these productions was a series of family classical concerts by the late Stephen Simon and his wife Bonnie Ward Simon. Mr. Simon was a well-known conductor who established, among other programs, an annual Handel festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
5. Various Recordings for Play and Rest
The youngest children often respond enthusiastically to classical compositions cause them to whirl, twirl, leap, and kick up their feet to a rapid beat. Music educators often suggest playing to toddlers’ need to move by using recordings of such extra-lively pieces as Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt, and pieces from Gioachino Rossini’s comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville.
The Barber of Seville offers even greater opportunities for nostalgic fun when parents share with their children the vintage 1950 Looney Tunes cartoon version. Called “The Rabbit of Seville,” the cartoon short features characters Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in their now-classic bit.
Other favorites to get the blood flowing for toddlers and their families include the “Hoe-Down” section from American composer Aaron Copland’s iconic ballet Rodeo, the energetic Russian Dance “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and the whirligig rhythms of “Sabre Dance” from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane. “Sabre Dance” continues to enjoy broad recognition in popular culture as a common theme played in movies and television shows.
Soothing music at bedtime can contribute to more restful sleep, as well as to an increased appreciation for music among children and their families. Music educators often recommend playing pieces such as Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello as lullabies. These collections of dance compositions—featuring gavottes, sarabands, minuets, and more—are among the most frequently performed works for the resonant instrument. Recordings such as Janos Starker’s Bach: Complete Suites for Solo Cello on the Mercury Living Presence label, for example, offer the slow, steady beats and flights of fancy that promote focused relaxation for parents and children alike.
One of the most serenely lovely compositions ever created may be the Concerto for Flute and Harp by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Among suggested recordings of this dream-like piece is that featuring violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin as conductor with the English Chamber Orchestra, available in various recorded editions.
There are a number of methods and sets of practices, some generations-old, for teaching the techniques - and the enjoyment - of music to children. Here are brief summaries of four of the best-known and most widely used of these methods throughout much of the world.
1. The Kodály Method
In 2016, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization placed the music teaching method devised by 20th-century Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály on its UNESCO World Heritage List. The method’s ability to help preserve traditional folk music and make it easier to learn earned it a place on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage practices.
This experience-based teaching method is comprehensive in its teaching of how to read and write music as part of a basic musical curriculum. Singing, folk songs, and solfège - training the ear to understand pitch and pattern - are all central components of the curriculum. Kodály believed that learning to express oneself through singing the songs of one’s native land should be a foundation stone of a child’s musical education.
The Kodály Method begins with helping children develop a sense of rhythm, and with teaching sight-reading and basic pitch through a series of hand signals that assist in demonstrating the relationships between musical notes.
Kodály, a collaborator with his fellow Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, gathered and published major collections of Hungarian folk songs. He was an important figure in the spread of music education throughout Hungary. His method puts such strong emphasis on folk songs because he believed the genre possesses every quality necessary for inculcating a deep love of music in each child.
2. The Suzuki Method
The Suzuki Talent Education Method starts music training early, with teachers striving to ensure that children learn mental focus and fine muscle control when they are young enough to make these skills an integral part of their personalities.
This method involves parents in their children’s music education as co-educators and co-learners. Parents may learn to play an instrument before their child does, and they serve as reinforcing influences in the home for the lessons provided by the classroom teacher.
The Suzuki Method concentrates on teaching music the same way that children acquire language: through listening and repeating. Every day, a Suzuki student listens to recordings of the same piece of music he or she is engaged in learning. Regular review allows students to incorporate new techniques into material already mastered. Reading music waits until the student has begun to master actually playing an instrument.
The method’s inventor, Japanese violinist Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, based his method on the way children naturally acquire spoken language, calling his program a “mother tongue” approach. He emphasized the joy involved when children, parents, and teachers participate in studying music together. He was less concerned with training professional musicians than he was with enriching children’s lives so that their natural sensitivity and awareness of the world around them would blossom.
3. The Orff Method
In the Orff Method, a child learns music through movement, singing, and acting out musically-themed stories. Students may use xylophones, drums, maracas, tone blocks, and numerous other percussion instruments to practice melodies within a learning framework that emphasizes the importance of play and fun.
Teachers also encourage their students to compose their own pieces of music, and to practice improvising already-known pieces. Student improvisation is, in fact, one of the cornerstones of this method, as children have the chance to follow their own creative ideas during lessons.
The Orff Method is known in the original German as Orff-Schulwerk (Orff Schoolwork), and also called simply “Music for Children.”
The 20th-century composer Carl Orff is today best known for his 1937 oratorio Carmina Burana, a work that exemplifies his passion for strong rhythm and movement. He also assisted the gymnast Dorothee Günther in establishing a school focused on music, gymnastic training, and dance. During his time working with the school in the 1920s and 1930s, he came up with the ideas that would form the basis for his own musical education system.
His book, entitled Orff-Schulwerk, which appeared in English translation as Music for Children, is based on the lessons he devised in collaboration with Gunild Keetman, a former student at the Günther school. The method is now taught in dozens of countries and is the subject of increasing interest around the world.
Teachers using the Orff system create their own lessons based on the needs of their individual students. A typical lesson might begin with a teacher reading a poem aloud to the class, followed by students acting out a short drama based on the poem. The students then repeat the poem, this time adding sound by accompanying the story with musical instruments.
4. Dalkroze Eurythmics
Dalkroze Eurythmics is a music instruction method anchored in using ear-training, movement exercises, and improvisation to awaken and develop a child’s inborn gift for music and rhythm.
Created by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, a 20th-century composer and professor of harmony in Geneva, Switzerland, the method is centered on its author’s tenet that rhythm-based, ear-training process cements musical concepts into a student’s muscle memory. This increases musical proficiency and builds a deep understanding of the physical demands on the musician. Dalcroze believed that students learn best through engagement of multiple senses, and that in order to gain a true understanding of his method, it is necessary to actually experience it.
Dalcroze designed his method to teach music on a deep level, building an understanding of how it works to express a range of meaning and emotion, as well as how it relates to other arts and to the daily life of human beings. His work has been influential in the development of the performing arts and art therapy.
The benefits of experiencing, learning about, and playing music don’t end with childhood. Not only does music enhance the lives of all adults, but it plays a major role in strengthening the cognitive abilities of seniors in particular. Scientists—and music teachers—have long understood that music stimulates parts of the brain responsible for higher mental and emotional functions. Here is an outline of how that works:
1. Greater mental acuity
The early benefits that accrue from studying a musical instrument can make your brain more resilient over the course of your life. These benefits have even been shown to help people overcome multiple deficits that come with normal aging. Older adults who played a musical instrument during their childhood tended to hold onto the early gains in brain functioning.
A study conducted by the Emory University neurology department demonstrated that seniors who played a musical instrument for at least 10 years scored higher on tests of memory and general intellectual ability than did their counterparts who did not have any musical training.
When older adults take part in music and arts programming, they also experience improvements in their overall physical and social health. This participation strengthens their sense of being part of a community, their ability to form bonds with others, and their sense of personal identity. And when seniors participate in creating music or even in listening experiences, they also tend to experience more satisfaction with their quality of life and well-being.
Music lessons may also play a role in preventing some aspects of physical aging. One group of researchers found that senior musicians’ auditory cortexes—the part of the brain involved in the sense of hearing—did not age as much as those of their non-musical counterparts. These seniors were therefore less likely to experience hearing loss with age. Experts point out that even for those who begin musical training far beyond childhood, similar benefits can occur.
2. Improved memory
In one recent study at the University of California, Irvine, researchers determined that after listening to classical music, adults with Alzheimer’s disease showed improvements in their performance on memory tests. Another study showed that older adults between the ages of 60 and 85 who took half-hour piano lessons every week and practiced for an additional three hours demonstrated significant gains in their ability to memorize and assimilate information after only a few months. These older adults went into the study with no prior serious musical experience.
Additional research has shown that background music had a positive effect on older adults’ memories. This held true for both semantic memory—dealing with facts—and episodic memory—dealing with personal experiences—as well as for the ability to rapidly absorb and understand new information. In this study, the test subjects were adults who were not musicians and who had a mean age of 69 years.
In the study, researchers used recordings of pieces by composers Mozart and Mahler, and introduced a white noise control segment and another control segment without music. They tested the subjects’ performance for each of these four segments, with the musical pieces and the white noise played as the background both prior to and during tests that included memorizing lists of words and creating as many words as possible beginning with a particular letter.
By listening to both Mozart and Mahler, seniors demonstrated improved performance on examinations of semantic and episodic memory. Mozart, in particular, fostered an increase in the speed of mental processing. On the other hand, Mahler did not seem to aid in mental processing speed over the white noise or the “music-less” segments of the test.
One reason why the seniors performed better while listening to Mozart may be that they identified the composer’s music as being more conducive to feelings of happiness. They found Mahler, an early 20th century composer noted as a pioneer in the incorporation of massive dissonances in his music, to be sadder in tone. The researchers theorized that when their test subjects felt happier, their speed of mental performance increased. They also noted that the pieces by both composers used in the test lacked lyrics and theorized that the distraction of listening to lyrics during the testing might have impaired memorization.
3. Reduced stress
Participation in music-related activities has also been shown to decrease stress levels in adults. An analysis of hundreds of studies has demonstrated music’s ability to reduce feelings of depression and produce a more calm, focused state of mind in adults of all ages. When adults listen to a musical performance or play music themselves as part of a group, their levels of the chemicals oxytocin and dopamine tend to increase. Oxytocin in the body promotes feelings of trustfulness and closeness to others, while increases in dopamine levels are associated with better concentration and a general elevation in mood.
Other research even finds a correlation between listening to music and experiencing a reduction in pain. For example, in one study, adults demonstrated a reduction in chronic pain symptoms by more than 20 percent and in feelings of depression by as much as 25 percent when listening to music.
Over the years, numerous educators and other experts have weighed in on the importance of music education to the intellectual, emotional, and social development of young people. Yet the depth and breadth of music education programs as part of the standard school curriculum varies significantly from one nation to another. Following is an overview of the state of music education in selected countries and regions around the world.
The Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland—offer robust music education programs both in and out of the classroom, all supported through government funding.
One example of this commitment to music education is the fact that Finnish instructors training to teach the subject receive 350 hours of government-supported education.
Finland’s commitment to music education is also notable in that it blends the great music teaching traditions of the Russian and Hungarian educational systems with the full complement of financial support available through the modern Finnish democratic social welfare state.
Finnish music programs integrate the teaching of the subject closely with other academic disciplines with a focus on quality. Music teachers and students also enjoy the advantages that come with Finland’s long-standing respect for the value of music and art. Young children study music as a form of play and exploration within a systematic curriculum that has earned worldwide renown.
Australia offers an example of how a national music education program can look when there is inconsistency in funding and support for it.
One study, administered under the auspices of The Music Trust, an organization that advocates for better music education programs, found that more than 60 percent of the schools that responded did not provide access to music education. Of the schools reporting that they did offer it, less than one-quarter of government-run schools were led by teachers with specialist qualifications in music. The figure is at variance with that of privately supported schools, of which 88 percent of the music programs were taught by specialist instructors.
Australian music education typically focuses on developing students’ general knowledge of the history and practice of music, as well as the ability to express themselves creatively within a musical tradition. Moreover, there is an emphasis on the country’s own musical traditions of the past and present, including those of the Aboriginal people.
In order to increase the quality of Australian music education, a national organization for teachers of music has initiated a government-supported program designed to narrow the gap between private and state-run schools. The program aims to expand the ability of music teachers to obtain ongoing professional development through a mentoring program.
Music education in Canada, like that in the United States and the United Kingdom, presents an inconsistent picture in that the level of commitment to it can vary widely from one school district to another. For example, more than one-third of Canadian schools responding to a recent survey reported that they either had no music program or had one taught by instructors without any background in the subject.
Canadian experts have pointed to several roadblocks that stand in the way of further development of the music curricula, including a lack of funding and qualified teachers, as well as time to develop music programs properly. As in the US, parent groups often hold fundraising events to support their schools’ music programs.
Additionally, Canadian schools typically emphasize the development of music listening skills for younger elementary students, the expansion of the curriculum to include learning performance skills, and visits to local musical performances for older students.
The United Kingdom
In the UK, financial constraints can also be a problem. Yet recent progress includes a 2012 nationwide government initiative that established more than 100 hubs for music education to provide more than 1 million students with the opportunity to use musical instruments.
Critics of the UK’s music education programs have noted that the emphasis on learning to play an instrument takes up most of the average student’s time. Consequently, few students actually study music theory, music history, or the role of music as a vital cultural product.
As in the UK and Canada, many public school districts in the US are inadequately funded. And when budgets do need to be cut, music and arts education are often the first programs to be discontinued.
Parents and music teachers are well aware that their fundraising efforts are often the most significant factor in determining whether their schools can offer a high-quality music program—or any music program at all.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support the widely-held idea that exposing infants and children to classical music can lead to an increase in their intelligence. However, research does indicate that listening to classical music can have a positive effect on many other areas of children's development.
Recent studies have suggested that young children who are exposed to classical music find it easier to concentrate, develop a stronger sense of self-discipline, are better listeners, and ultimately have a wider range of interest in music as they grow into young adults.
If you’re interested in introducing your child to classical music, these five popular and powerful pieces written by some of the greatest composers in history are an excellent place to get started.
1. Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
2. The Flight of the Bumblebee, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
3. Fur Elise, Ludwig von Beethoven
4. The Nutcracker Suite Op. 71a, Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky
5. Clair de Lune, Claude Debussy
When parents encourage their children to take music lessons from a young age, the piano is one of the most popular instrument choices. There is no definitive age at which experts suggest children begin music lessons; young musicians only need to be large enough to reach the keys and have enough hand dexterity to manipulate them.
If you are a parent who is thinking about introducing your young child to music through piano lessons for the first time, there are certain things you will need to do in order to prepare your child and your home for the experience before the first class. Listed below are six things to do before your child attends his or her first piano lesson.
1. Invest in a piano for your home.
The first step that you can take to benefit your future music student is to purchase a piano for him or her to use. Ideally, this should be done months or years ahead of time so that your child can grow up around the instrument and develop a familiarity with it prior to learning to play.
At the very least, make sure to invest in a piano right before he or she begins lessons. While there are ways to obtain free access to a piano outside of the home, nothing will be as accessible or as beneficial to your child’s learning experience as having a piano to practice on in his or her immediate environment.
While a new piano can be a significant investment, there are many websites where you can find gently-used pianos for affordable prices. Once you’ve found a piano that suits your budget, make sure to get it tuned by a professional so that the notes your child plays as he or she learns are in key.
2. Create the ideal practice space around the piano.
Where you place the piano in your home will affect how your young music student feels about the act of practicing. Professionals in music education suggest situating your piano in an area of the home that is neither too isolated nor too close to distractions like a television or computer.
The area should be warm and welcoming with adequate lighting. It must also include all the equipment that your child will need for practice sessions, including music sheets, pencils, and a comfortable piano bench. The more positive the physical practice area is, the more likely your child will feel enthusiastic about practicing when the time comes.
3. Listen to music together.
Spending quality time listening to music with your child can help him or her to develop a positive relationship with it as they grow up. While they listen, try to introduce them to basic musical concepts like rhythm by having them clap along to the beat of a song with you.
It can also be helpful to look up exciting videos of piano performances on YouTube, such as those made by the Piano Guys, to give your child a visual of what it’s like to play the instrument. Having this kind of familiarity may help children feel more comfortable with the instrument when they begin their first lessons.
4. Help your child learn the ABCs.
If your child understands the alphabet by the time that he or she takes up piano lessons, that ability will help them to identify and understand the names of notes. The musical alphabet spans notes with names from A to G, and a child who can remember the order and recognize letters when written on a music sheet will be in a better position to learn.
It can also be helpful to teach your child how to distinguish between his or her right and left sides as way to improve his or her ability to interact with a piano’s keyboard. Helping your child become aware that he or she can mirror the action of one hand on a side of their body with the other will facilitate the development of better spatial awareness. Additionally, it will help him or her better understand directions given during lessons.
5. Have a discussion about lessons and expectations.
While your child may be excited about the prospect of learning to play the piano, it’s important that you as the parent communicate your expectations for him or her at the outset. Make sure that your child knows that learning an instrument will be a fun experience, but that it requires practice and dedication. Talk to your child about the importance of daily practice, and make a verbal agreement on how often, when, and for what minimum amount of time your child will dedicate him- or herself to the practice of the piano each day.
6. Have a meet-and-greet with the instructor.
When choosing a music instructor for your child, try to schedule a meeting with prospective teachers before you make a decision. Once you find the right instructor, make sure to discuss the goals that you would like your child to accomplish through lessons and get feedback on the best ways that you can foster your child’s musical development at home.
Research proves the incredible effects that music education can have on the minds of children. Apart from aiding skill development in areas like language, test-taking, and spatial intelligence, learning music can also help children develop socially and emotionally, and allow them to explore their creativity in a way that is both fun and cathartic.
Today, it seems more imperative than ever for all children to have access to an education in music, but not all parents or schools can afford to connect kids to these programs. To help promote music education, consider donating to nonprofits and foundations dedicated to this cause. The following organizations are some of the most visible in this field, but many other groups exist as well.
VH1 Save the Music Foundation
Established in 1997 by the eponymous music television network, the VH1 Save the Music Foundation has since raised $50 million to buy new instruments for music programs at over 2,000 public schools. Altogether, this work has directly impacted the lives of roughly 2 million American children. The foundation believes that music is a key part of kids’ healthy development, and suggests that lessons in the subject can boost children’s interest in attending school, promote valuable life skills, and help kids grow into well-rounded adults. The group’s ultimate goal is to make sure every child in the United States has the ability to play an instrument if they want to. VH1 Save the Music Foundation encourages people to support its work by donating directly to the cause or by hosting a fundraiser on the organization’s behalf. Details about hosting or giving to a fundraiser can be found here.
Fender Music Foundation
Another nonprofit sponsored by a major music industry corporation, the Fender Music Foundation is a charitable organization established by musical instrument maker Fender in 2005. This grantmaking organization guarantees that 100 percent of all donations from supporters go directly to paying for instruments used in music classrooms around the country. To date, the foundation has helped more than 187,000 students by donating a wide range of instruments, including guitars, drums, keyboards, brass instruments, pianos, woodwind instruments, amps, and recorders. Supporters can donate funds and, in some circumstances, instruments to the organization. Monetary donations can be made online via the Fender Music Foundation website. Donors who give $30 or more receive a collectable metal keychain in the shape of a pick or a Stratocaster guitar.
National Association of Music Merchants Foundation (NAMM Foundation)
The NAMM Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the National Association of Music Merchants, which brings together professionals from the music, sound, and event technology industries around the world. The foundation was created in 2006 with a three-part mission: to advocate for music education, to fund and promote research on the effects of music, and to make music instruction accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, including veterans and the elderly. The NAMM Foundation awards grants to a wide range of music-based organizations in need of support every year, and partners with groups such as The Kennedy Center, Americans for the Arts, the Music Achievement Council, and the aforementioned VH1 Save the Music Foundation. The group’s online donation portal can be found here.
The Roots of Music
A regional nonprofit focused specifically on the needs of students in New Orleans, Louisiana, The Roots of Music promotes the idea that music education can make a significant difference in the life of a child. Through the organization, kids between the ages of nine and 14 from disadvantaged backgrounds in New Orleans gain access to education in music history, theory, and instrumentation. Lessons provided by the group have a special focus on New Orleans’ rich musical heritage and its history as the birthplace of jazz. The most unique aspect of The Roots of Music, however, is that the group goes beyond music lessons to also provide participants with hot meals and transportation to and from classes—two things that could otherwise bar some children from participating in a music education program. To help the work of The Roots of Music, supporters can donate, check the website for volunteer opportunities, or attend charitable events throughout the year that benefit the organization.
Little Kids Rock
Little Kids Rock was formed by elementary school educator David Wish in 1996 as a response to a severe lack of funding for music education at the school where he worked. It began with Wish offering free after-school guitar lessons to students and has since evolved into a nationwide organization that provides 650,000 students from underserved communities with access to instruments and modern band classes. The nonprofit accomplishes this primarily through financial support for schools that have seen their music programs shut down and by training volunteer teachers to conduct the modern band lessons developed by Little Kids Rock. The program currently operates in 37 states and serves more than 200 school districts. Many celebrity musicians are public supporters of Little Kids Rock, including Carlos Santana, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Jett, and Gene Simmons, among many others. Interested parties can donate via the organization’s website at www.littlekidsrock.org or learn more about becoming a Little Kids Rock volunteer teacher on the organization’s FAQ page.