Keys to Learning Part III –
Playing Instruments Early Benefits Child Later

Keys, both physical as well as musical, have long symbolized the tools needed to unlock potential in ourselves.

Young In Oregon

Play It Forward is one of several nonprofit arts organizations serving our state’s public school students, according to the Oregon Community Foundation. However, most arts groups focus on children in middle and high school, the foundation notes, whereas PIF has focused on K-5 students. PIF is also distinguished from many music programs by the fact it offers weekly instrumental lessons of the kind older children often don’t experience till fifth or sixth grade at the earliest.

In part, this is because PIF has found the earlier children learn how to play an instrument, the more positive effects such learning has on that child’s development.

For example, Carnegie Hall commissioned a 2020 research paper from an expert on childhood and music, Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, titled Why Making Music Matters. The 2013 recipient of the National Guild Service Award from the National Guild for Community Arts Education, Palmer Wolf’s findings were summarized in an article that notes music is at the foundation of a person’s brain development.

“The more we learn, the clearer it becomes that live music can play a powerful role in this development from the very start,” the article states. “Studies have found that day-old infants breathe differently depending on whether they are listening to Mozart or Stravinsky, that music soothes premature babies (and their worried parents) in hospital nurseries, and that babies will listen calmly to a lullaby for twice as long as baby talk or adult speech.”

Furthermore, this effect carries over into a child’s later learning, the article states.

“Making music — especially if it includes tapping, clapping, bouncing, and dancing — can develop fine and large motor control. Even simple games, songs, and back-and-forth play build brain and body coordination,” the article states. “If older children play an instrument, these kinds of growth continue. All this builds important connections across the many regions of the brain needed to carry out the complex actions and interactions humans require in order to thrive.”


Consonant Concerns

PIF has taught hundreds of children the art of piano playing, and there is extensive research to indicate such instruction is a sound – pun intended – investment.

For example, the music teacher blog “In the Musikgarten” notes two researchers from MITs McGovern Institute for Brain Research published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that concluded early exposure to piano practice enhances the processing of sounds in language.

“As kids’ ears become trained to distinguish between different tones from the hundreds of internal strings of a piano, they also get better at discriminating subtle differences between spoken words,” the blog states. “For the study, seventy-four Mandarin-speaking kindergarteners were divided into three groups – one that took 45-minute piano lessons every week, the second had reading instruction for the same duration, and the third had neither.

“After six months, the researchers found that children who took the piano lessons were specifically better at spoken words that differentiated by only one consonant than the other two groups … The results of this study were so remarkable that the school in Beijing where the research was conducted continued to offer piano lessons to students after the experiment ended.”

Flexible, Adaptable

Your brain is ever-evolving, and reams of research have found learning to play an instrument, even when you are elderly, yields positive benefits.

However, a number of researchers have noted the earlier you start playing an instrument, the better over the long run for your brain for a simple reason – when you’re young, your brain does the bulk of its growing – your brain is already 80 percent of its final size by age 4. From infancy through middle childhood, your brain is rapidly creating pathways and connections that will serve it for life, and music helps your brain comprehend the world in several ways, from spatially to verbally.

The Arts Education Partnership, a national coalition of more than 100 education, arts, cultural, government, business and philanthropic organizations, published reports in 2011 and 2018, titled “Music Matters” that offer all kinds of exciting conclusions about why learning music as a child prepares you for life.

The AEP sifted through numerous academic studies, and summarized its findings as follows: 

  • Musical training develops the region of the brain responsible for verbal memory.  The recall and retention of spoken words — which serves as a foundation for retaining information in all academic subjects. Music students who were tested for verbal memory showed a superior recall for words as compared to non-music students.
  • Advances math achievement. Students who study music outperform their non-music peers in assessments of math, and the advantage that music provides increases over time. These findings hold true regardless of socio-economic status and race/ethnicity. Additionally, students involved in instrumental music do better in algebra, a gateway for later achievement.
  • Boosts reading and English language arts (ELA) skills. Students who study music surpass non-music students in assessments of writing, using information resources, reading and responding, and proofreading. The gains in achievement of music students compared to non-music students increase over time.

Year Ahead

Our KEYS to Learning Series highlights what we do at Play It Forward as we ask you, our valued supporter, to help put those KEYS in the hands of our students.
On that note, in 2024, we are asking folks to commit to one of two options:
  1. Make a monthly donation of $20 for 2024.
  2. Make a one-time $200 donation that will be used to fund 200 students receiving backpacks!

We realize our supporters often assist many nonprofits in our community, not just us, so any contribution you can make to Play It Forward is more than welcome.

We are in an exciting period of organizational growth and improvement, as we’re becoming better and better known in the educational and nonprofit communities. We hope you will continue to accompany Play It Forward as we journey toward a brighter future for all the children we serve.