We live in dark times. The age of austerity is upon us, the eurozone is circling the drain and even the Chinese have discovered their economy can't keep growing forever. In the midst of all this economic doom and gloom, any cash strapped parent could be forgiven for looking at the idea of music lessons for their child as something of an unnecessary frivolity. Far better to spend their time and money on academic or vocational pursuits. Music lessons... well, they're just a bit of fun, aren't they?
So speaks conventional wisdom.
However, as with so many things, conventional wisdom is very, very, wide of the mark. There are a huge number of cognitive and developmental benefits associated with learning an instrument – and I'd make the case that the guitar, with its portability, relative cheapness, attractive image and history of improvisation rather than rigid adherence to classical strictures is about the best place it's possible to start.
First off, let's look at the academic benefits. Intelligence is a hard thing to define – let's not forget that Einstein was a completely average pupil at school – but at it's heart lies the capacity to understand a subject from first principles, and then extrapolate different outcomes from those principles. An understanding of software coding built from the ground up enables a software developer to come up with programs to cover any eventuality he or she can think of – someone trying to achieve the same result forcing together chunks of rote learned code isn't going to succeed. Music is a fantastic primer for these thought patterns, as there are only twelve notes so the building blocks are very simple. From the chromatic scale we get the major scale, from the major scale we build chord progressions which we can recognise and identify using the Nashville Number System and so on.
That ability to understand and extrapolate, those thought patterns which are so essential to problem solving, once mastered in one easy, enjoyable recreational field, can be very simply applied to others. Extensive research done in this area has proved that children who learn to play a musical instrument do better in academics. Shaw, Rauscher, Levine, Wright, Dennis and Newcomb, in their research paper titled Music Training Causes Long-Term Enhancement Of Preschool Children's Spatial-Temporal Reasoning, speak about, “a research team exploring the link between music and intelligence reported that music training is far superior to computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children's abstract reasoning skills, the skills necessary for learning math and science."
Hand in hand with these benefits go the additional ones of improving short term memory – a big part of a musician is learning to recognise, internalise and recreate patterns. This is an essential part of learning and understanding any discipline, from languages to physics. Maestro Eduardo Marturet, reiterates this point when he says, "Further research has shown that participation in music at an early age can help improve a child's learning ability and memory by stimulating different patterns of brain development." Music education is also linked to higher IQ levels and the physical development of certain parts of the brain.
Discipline, patience and focus are essential qualities for success in any field and these are all qualities which will be exercised and developed by learning a musical instrument. The discipline to apply yourself to a regular practice routine, the patience to keep working on a particular song or section or solo until it comes good, the focus needed to look at a part and work out where the problems are and how to solve them.. these qualities have a huge carryover into the real world. If you've got the discipline, patience and focus to keep plugging away at crafting the perfect solo for your band's new song, you're more than likely to have the discipline, patience and focus to root out the bad line of code or trace the engine problem or even just keep the burger under the grill for exactly the right amount of time to bring out the flavour. It's all about the attitude.
Let's also not forget that learning in itself is a skill. Learning an instrument is a multilayered process that involves looking at what you want to do, looking at what you're currently doing, evaluating the two and working out what problems are there and how they can be solved (I've encountered people who can't – or won't – do this, as I'm sure we all have). Applying this self-critical approach to everyday activities brings interesting results, especially for kids on the edge of adolescence when their perceptions of themselves and the world around them start to change rapidly. Learning how to learn, how to truly understand something, is a complete game changer for younger students.
This brings me onto another interesting psychological issue, particularly applicable to younger students who are in their early teens and starting to define themselves. If you have a skill, or even the beginnings of a skill, you have a tool with which to define yourself in a world which can seem uncertain and confusing. Without something to define yourself positively, it's natural that a child will tend to fall back on acting out and bad behaviour because they can only define themselves negatively – I'm not one of those nerds, I'm not one of those goths etc etc. Give him or her a skill, something that they can do, and their confidence rises, solving a whole lot of issues along the way. I've seen this happen myself – kids who've had behavioural issues calming down because they have something that is theirs they can focus their energy on. No longer is little Johnny only identifying himself as the class clown in the back row who gets detention each week, he's little Johnny who's an awesome guitar player. And as he keeps playing, keeps practicing, he gets more awesome. And he stops getting detentions because he's got better things to do.
It happens. Not 100% of the time, and not overnight, but it happens.
Finally, let's not forget the fact that music is a highly social activity – bands, school orchestras, singing groups etc. If your child is starting a new school or struggling find friends at their current one, being able to play an instrument instantly gives him or her a skill in common with which they can bond with other ids. Being in a band or orchestra also gives them the experience of being part of a group, all working towards the same goal, which is invaluable training for all manner of occupations.
Every kid has a hobby. Why not encourage one that has academic, social and behavioural benefits? That guitar, or keyboard, or even (God forbid) drum kit might seem expensive and noisy, but it may well be the smartest investment you ever make in your child's future.