Besides being a stress-buster, classical music helps kids develop various functions of their brain

Chennai has just got over its music frenzy. It was a month when Chennai-ites were entranced by T.M. Krishna's inspired alapanas, tapped their fingers to the rhythm of Ghatam Karthik's ensemble, swayed their heads to Aruna Sairam's abhangs... But are we missing something?

Most of us are just listeners. Besides the pleasure of simply listening to music, which Red Auerbach famously described as something that washes away the dust of everyday life from the soul, we need music in a different way — as a learning experience that develops neuro-emotional-spatio-temporal-cognition. While adults stand to benefit a great deal too, for kids, learning classical music is crucial. By doing so, kids can develop not just better brain networking and processing, but also focus, discipline, lateral thinking, timing, orientation and coordination.

Anatomy of music

We have a single brain, right? True, but it happens to be split into two hemispheres, each with different functions. The melody aspect of music gets processed in the right brain while the rhythm and metre part of music get processed in the left brain. Much of our day-to-day activities involve the left brain which deals with logic and analytical skills. Considering the average person hardly uses the right brain, learning music (or any creative pursuit such as art) can be a great way to activate the right brain.

“Learning classical music improves neuroplasticity — networking in the brain. It also improves the inter-hemispheric connections as the processing of music in our brain is split between its two hemispheres,” says neurologist Subbulakshmy Natarajan, who did her doctorate on ‘Classical music and brain cognition and musical behaviour' and is currently researching on the effect of music on children.

Dr. Subbulakshmy says, “We give step-motherly treatment to our right brain. But the fact is it is a whole hemisphere waiting to be explored.” And music could be a key to it.

Each form of music has its set of demands and rewards. Take drums, for instance. To the listener, it sounds like mere beats, but playing the drums also involves methodical foot-tapping that is split between the right hand-left leg and left hand-right leg and other combinations, besides the hand (stick) movement over the different drums. “This builds up concentration and mind-eye-hand-leg coordination,” says drummer V. Ashok Kumar.

Music and the three Rs

Learning music improves your mathematical, memory, pattern recognition, mental representation, and reading skills. Classical music involves ratios, fractions, proportions and thinking in space and time. In fact, a child who learns classical music becomes better equipped to comprehend mathematical and scientific concepts, say western neuroscientists.

This effect came to be termed the Mozart Effect after a 1993 study by Dr. Francis Rauscher and Dr. Gordon L. Shaw of the University of California claimed that college students' scores improved on spatial-temporal reasoning tests after listening to Mozart. A U.S. Department of Education study (1998) even found that those who learnt music received more academic honours and awards than non-music students. Another study found that training in music helps under-achievers. Several countries such as Hungary, the Netherlands and Japan have even made music training compulsory at the elementary and middle school levels.

There are other incidental spin-offs too. “Getting into an engrossing activity such as music or sport helps kids stay clear of drugs,” says adolescent counsellor Vani Murugan. A study by the University of Texas found that college-age musicians are emotionally healthier than their non-musician counterparts. Music helps kids connect and socialise with peers and others. Mastering a skill ups a child's self-esteem and opens an avenue for quiet children to express themselves. Finally, learning any skill instils discipline. The years of practice teach kids that perseverance does pay.

Rather than after-school tuitions which take the joy out of the life of our kids, imagine if parents do decide to take their kids along the musical route? Sounds good!

Musical spin-offs

Better brain networking and processing.

Focus, discipline, and self-esteem.

Lateral thinking.

Timing, orientation, and coordination.

Activation of the sparsely used right brain.

Memory, pattern recognition, mental representation, and reading skills.

Better comprehension of mathematical and scientific concepts.

An activity that could help kids stay clear of drugs and adolescent follies.