Preschoolers Gain Long-Term Advantages By Learning to Play the Piano

Numerous studies indicate that learning to play the piano as a preschooler sets a child up for later academic success. But tell that to most parents or grandparents of energetic preschoolers and they’ll wonder how they could get their children to sit still long enough to play an entire song. The research clearly shows that preschoolers who are exposed to early piano/keyboard lessons have an advantage in school. The trick is to find a method that is engaging and fun enough to motivate young children to learn, but teaches them to read and play real music.

There are certain periods of time, known as windows of opportunity, in a child’s brain development when it is especially open to certain kinds of learning. As children discover the joys of piano, brain cells (neurons) are connecting to form the types of complex thought pattern necessary to excel in math and science. But, from about age 5, neurons not connected into the brain’s overall wiring begin fading away – and so does the opportunity for intelligence in that area of the brain.

Because neural connections are responsible for all types of intelligence, a child’s brain develops to its full potential only with exposure to the necessary enriching experiences in early childhood. Dr. Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin and Dr. Gordon Shaw of the University of California have studied the connection between musical and nonmusical training on preschoolers’ intellectual development for many years. Their studies indicate that music training generates the neural connections used for abstract reasoning, including those necessary for understanding mathematical concepts.

In one study, Dr. Rauscher and Dr. Shaw compared the effects of musical and nonmusical training on preschoolers’ intellectual developments. They found that preschoolers who received piano or keyboard training performed 34% higher on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability than did other preschoolers. Those who received piano or keyboard training could think in pictures and see the pictures moving or changing shape over time – a crucial skill for later success in mathematics, science and engineering.

Researchers at the University of California observed two separate groups of preschoolers. Group one took piano lessons and sang daily in a chorus. Group two did neither. After a period of eight months the musical three-year-olds in group one were expert puzzle masters scoring 80% higher than their playmates in spatial intelligence.

A research team exploring the link between music and intelligence reported that music training is far superior to computer instruction in enhancing children’s abstract reasoning skills. Music training jump-starts certain inherent patterns in parts of the brain responsible for such reasoning. Computer lessons do not force children to think ahead or visualize, as they must when playing a piece of music. With the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of high-tech jobs that require computer skills, there seems to be less interest in music and arts education. Fortunately, while all this is happening, several studies by experts in the field are demonstrating that studying the arts – particularly music – can actually help develop skills necessary when learning about computers.

The world’s top academic countries place a high value on music education. Hungary, Netherlands and Japan stand atop worldwide science achievement and have a strong commitment to music education. Building upon the pioneering work of Dr. Rauscher and Dr. Shaw, a recent study at the University of Munster in Germany revealed that practicing the piano in early childhood expands the mind, literally altering the anatomy of the brain.

Even though a parent or grandparent may understand the benefits of early piano/keyboard instruction, the search for a method that is fun and easy can be a daunting task. Fortunately, there are several programs for parents or grandparents to choose from. Depending on their individual situation, a parent or grandparent may choose to attend group lessons with their child or even teach their preschooler at home using one of the available methods.

Kindermusik classes offer kids an opportunity for singing, moving and playing simple rhythm instruments ideally with about eight children, each accompanied by a parent (www.kindermusik.com). At age 4 ½, Kindermusik students start a music appreciation class that teaches them about music from around the world. The children apply their musical literacy to pre-keyboard instruments. These children can then move on to piano lessons with a private instructor.

Another program called Pace uses an oversized keyboard mat that is placed on the floor. Instructors point to the white keys and black keys as children take turns at the piano. Rhythms are played as a group with rhythm sticks, and written note rhythms are read.

There are several programs available that allow parents to teach their preschoolers beginning piano at home. Local music stores have several series of early piano books that are designed for early instruction. For instance, Music for Little Mozarts uses fun cartoon characters to teach young children to play the piano or keyboard.

More recently, programs such as Piano for Preschoolers have become available (www.pianoforpreschoolers.com). This particular program allows parents without any musical background to teach their preschoolers to play the piano at home. This method uses color-coded notes written on a traditional musical staff to teach beginning piano concepts. Preschoolers can begin their study as soon as they recognize their colors.

Regardless of the method a parent or grandparent chooses, the benefits of early piano/keyboard instruction are clear. Children who begin music instruction as a preschooler are developing their natural musicality and this love of music can last a lifetime. The times spent with a caring parent or grandparent sharing their talents are just an added bonus.

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