Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cognitive Benefits of Suzuki Musical Instruction

"Music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart."

-Shinichi Suzuki

There are two weeks until our Integrated Suzuki Violin Program begins, and I am so excited! Beginning August 26th, we will be offering optional Suzuki violin instruction at the school; the program will be taught and administered by Erron Lacy of Longmont Suzuki Strings. In anticipation of the program, I have been busy taking violin lessons, practicing (so that I can competantly assist the children), setting up the Suzuki space, reading Suzuki literature, and reading some scientific literature about the many benefits of instrumental musical training for children this age.

Suzuki instruction requires a large commitment of both time and money from parents, but the payoff for the child is tremendous. I strongly believe (and I think empirical evidence confirms) that Suzuki-style musical instruction at a young age is the optimal method for teaching music. Not only does it give them an appreciation for beautiful music, but also many important cognitive benefits as well. I thought I would share a little of the research with you (and on days when practice doesn't go as well as you might have hoped, perhaps you will be able to re-read this and find yourself inspired again).

The brain of a young child is remarkably unfinished; in the early years of the child's life, he or she is literally wiring their brain and determining how information will flow through it's structures and get processed. What connections are formed between brain cells and which ones are ultimately retained is being shaped by their experiences (especially those which are repeated regularly and part of the child's routine).

There is little doubt that formal musical instruction (learning to play an instrument) can have an appreciable effect on neural processing.

Possibly the best study of how musical instruction effects this wiring comes from a study funded by the National Science Foundation 1. Ellen Winner (Ph.D at Boston College) and her colleague Gottfried Schlaug, began imaging the brains of five to seven year old children before they ever had a music lesson. They divided their sample into four groups of about forty students each. Some children got Suzuki-style music instruction on a keyboard or violin, some got a comparable amount of attention in a "music class" (kind of a "Kindermusic" sort of thing- fingerplays, singing, movement games, playing percussion instruments- similar to what lots of schools do in a music class or during large group times), some got a comparable amount of attention in foreign language instruction, and the fourth served as the control. Over the study's five year span, the researchers looked for three things: direct measures of learning musical skills (improved rhythm, understanding of pitch and tone, gains in finger dexterity, ability to read musical notation), indirect influences of music on other non-music areas (math reasoning, spatial reasoning, phonological processing- "reading"), and measures of structural brain changes through anatomical and functional MRI scans.

In the initial baseline brain scans, the researchers found no discernible structural differences in the children's brains, nor any significant cognitive differences in IQ testing. However, after a mere fifteen months, they found statistically significant differences in the brain structures between the groups. The children who recieved piano and violin instruction had brain regions controlling the left hand that were bigger than the other groups and the children used more of their temporal lobes and auditory cortex during tasks requiring rhythm discrimination and melody processing. They also had significantly improved musical skill (finger dexterity, note reading ability, etc), and math skills over the other groups. These results were unique to the children who recieved insturuction in playing an instrument (no statistically significant difference was found in children who received the other types of musical instruction).

After five years, the differences between the groups was even more striking. The children who learned to play the violin and piano showed significant differences over the control groups, including improved verbal memory, spatio-temporal reasoning, math reasoning, IQ scores, phonological processing, finger dexterity, and differences in brain structures- the corpus callosum, or bridge of communication between the hemispheres of the brain was larger, the right hemisphere of their brains was bigger (used for planning, executing movement, timing sequential movements, auditory processing, and controlling the left hand), the children showed a left hemispheric shift for melody processing, and the children had larger and earlier waveform responses in the left hemisphere of their brain for piano or violin sounds, indicating that their experience with music caused the brain to process and attend to those sounds differently. By contrast, the children who had recieved music classes (without learning to play an instrument), showed some improvement in direct measures of musical skill but no observeable differences in the structure of their brain or non-musical areas.

Many neuroscientists feel that given what is known about brain development, the differences would have been even more marked if children as young as three had been included in the study.

This might have left you wondering, "What about the Mozart effect I've heard so much about?" The now- famous experiments dubbed "the Mozart effect" were conducted by Gordon Shaw (Ph.D at University of California at Irvine) and Fran Rauscher (Ph.D at the University of Wisconsin)2. They had college students listen to Mozart's "Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major" for ten minutes before a spatial reasoning test. Two control groups heard white noise or British techno-pop. The students who listened to Mozart performed significantly better on tests of spatial reasoning than the other two groups. However, the effect only lasted a brief ten minutes and no one has been able to replicate the results.

As my favorite neuroscientist, Jill Stamm, summarizes, "This in no way shows that listening to Mozart sonatas makes a person smarter in any lasting way. It simply shows that listening to Mozart sonatas may boost one type of problem-solving ability in a controlled setting. At the very least, it's now clear that the original results should not have been applied to children and babies. Much more promising is the research on instrumental music training 3."

The results from the NSF study are echoed in studies from Paula Tallal (Ph.D. at Rutgers) whose research indicates that formal musical training can prevent and treat phonological deficits (the inability to hear sound units) by speeding up auditory processing and improving the child's attention system (her research suggests that the attention system may be so activated while learning music that it accounts for overall gains in other "academic" areas)4. Similarly, Katie Overy (Ph.D) has done research indicating that dyslexic children showed marked improvements in improved language, literacy, and phonological processing when they received formal music instruction 5.

While contemporary science continues to demonstrate the cognitive benefits of this kind of instruction, it does seem clear on this point- to achieve lasting cognitive improvements, learning to play an instrument at an early age is the optimal musical experience; additionally, although the character benefits are harder to measure, daily practice playing an instrument also teaches children at a very young age about discipline, perserverence, the importance of establishing good habits, and the ability to concentrate deeply and delay gratification.

So, although the cognitive benefits of Suzuki seem quite astounding, it is also important not to forget our main objective:

"Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop discipline, sensitivity, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart."


For more information about Erron Lacy or the Suzuki method, please visit

1- Winner, E. & Hetland, L. (2000) The arts and academic achievement: What the evidence shows. Journal of Aesthetic Education. 34 (3-4)
Winner, E. & Hetland, L. (eds). (2001). Proceedings from "Beyond the Soundbite: What the Research Actually Shows About Arts Education and Academic Outcomes." Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust
2-Rauscher, F. H. (2002). Mozart and the Mind: Factual and Fictional Effects of Musical Enrichment. In: Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education. (J. Aronson, ed). 269-278. New York: Academic Press.
3- Stamm, Jill. (2004). Effects of musical training on Brain and Cognitive Development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1060: 219-230
4- Tallal, P. & Gaab, N. (2006). Dynamic auditory processing, musical experiences, and language development. Trends in Neurosciences. 29(7):382-390
5- Overy, K. (2003). Dyslexia and music: From timing deficits to musical intervention. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 999:497-505

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