Music changes brains and lives


So here I am, sitting at the teacher’s piano in her comfortable living room, her friendly white terrier snoozing at my feet. I’m about to play the piece I have slaved over for hours in the preceding 7 days. It sounded excellent half an hour ago, when I played it to an audience of one (myself) at home. Now my fingers are shaking a little, and is it me? Or is this room really hot? My fingers stumble, hesitate, do a good impression of knitting and wave in greeting to not-quite-the-right keys and then flutter to rest, finished.

“Well, it’s coming on.” This, I have learnt over the past few months, is piano teacher speak for ‘still a long way to go.’

However, back home and undeterred, I study the piece again, breaking it down, bit by bit, painfully slowly, inching forward through the notes. Sitting at my piano in the sunshine in solitude, just me and that sheet music, solving that puzzle, I couldn’t be happier. And it’s doing me good.

Learning to sing or play a musical instrument can have long-term beneficial effects, especially when we are young. Recent research by Dr Nina Kraus at Northwestern University in the US suggests that early music training can improve the reading skills of disadvantaged children. Working with the Harmony Project at high schools in Chicago and Los Angeles, Kraus and her team found that the reading scores of 9-10 year-old kids with one year of music tuition held steady, compared with kids of similar age and IQ who received no tuition. It seems that music strengthens important neural functions which help learning. Kraus reports:

While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and offset this academic gap.

In other research, Kraus has found benefits for older adults who learn music in terms of faster speech processing into old age. Both studies are heartening news to me. The interesting part for me is that this musical training for older adults can be effectively delivered via a computer. However, the real deal instruments capture hearts, minds, emotions and commitment in a way that computers never can.

With great synchronicity, I discovered that a music initiative with kids in mind is being launched in the UK in September. Jamie Oliver (the chef who championed the provision of proper school meals and education about food in schools) is now backing The Great Instrument Amnesty campaign led by pianist James Rhodes. He wants to make us aware that music tuition in state schools is disappearing fast, as precious funds are diverted to other areas of the curriculum deemed worthier. His passion is evident:

Music saved my life. It’s that powerful. It is, and must continue to be, a basic human right for every child to learn an instrument.

Rhodes is advocating that families donate unwanted musical instruments via their local Oxfam shop to be reconditioned and distributed to primary schools. Rhodes has also used his musical network to provide free tuition to these schools by students of the highly respected Guildhall School of Music. A three-part TV series, made by Oliver’s production company, will be shown on C4.

It’s all good.





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