Why Every Student Learns Violin at UGM

Violin lessons at Urban Garden Montessori
Urban Garden Montessori students work out their bodies through PE and daily martial arts in order to build and stretch muscles, gain endurance, channel physical energy, and gain the confidence and wellbeing that come with these activities.  Research shows that the mental work out that occurs when people - especially children during certain sensitive time periods in their lives - learn to play an instrument, the benefits stretch far beyond knowing how to play that instrument.

Research studies have shown that learning to play an instrument has cognitive benefits that are unique even among the arts, and that study subjects with the same cognitive function prior to learning to play an instrument showed enhancement in multiple brain areas after a period of instrument instruction.  Students who began music instruction by first grade or age seven have in studies scored higher in math testing than their non-musical counterparts and actually had larger and more well-developed parts of the brain.

One important aspect of cognitive development in children is the ability to "cross the midline," basically learning to engage both the right and left hemisphere of the brain in solving a problem or mastering a skill.  Tasks such as writing require this ability, and students who have an underdeveloped ability to cross the midline often struggle with the task of writing.  Children naturally develop the ability to cross the midline through developmental activities such as crawling.  Other activities, such as table washing, were developed by Maria Montessori to further develop and strengthen this ability (among other purposes) - large motions of the arms that cross the body, such as those engaged in table washing, create cross-hemisphere connections.  In physical therapy for individuals who struggle with crossing the midline, motions such as those utilized in table washing are utilized to strengthen connections between both sides of the brain.  In addition to the child's natural development, engaged and fostered through a Montessori education, research shows that learning to play an instrument can engage both hemispheres of the brain in a way that develops faster and more diverse routes of communications between the right and left sides.  This allows musicians to solve problems more creatively in settings outside of playing music, such as academics.

Research has also shown that musicians have higher levels of executive function, the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.  Executive function can be impaired in children who experience neglect or high levels of toxic stress during early childhood.  The grace and courtesy aspect of Montessori education allows students to exercise the parts of their brain that help develop executive function, by allowing students to learn relationship-building and the emotional task of getting along with groups of individuals who are different from themselves (a multi-age classroom).  The ability to direct their own action, make mistakes, and be independent within a secure and emotionally safe environment also makes a Montessori classroom uniquely ideal for building good executive function, especially during the important three to six year old timeframe.  Research shows that musicians are particularly strong in the area of executive function, and that learning to play an instrument is another way of building these cognitive skills.  That is because playing an instrument engages not only the parts of the brain that hear sound, control the motion of the hand, and read the music, but also by simultaneously crafting and understanding the music's emotional content.  The ability to engage both cognitive and emotional processes in the brain is a valuable and unique benefit of making music.  

Memory functions, including the ability to create, store, and quickly retrieve memories, have also been shown to be enhanced in individuals who play a musical instrument.  The additional brain connections created through learning to play an instrument allow musicians to "tag" memories in more ways, which in turn allows for easier access to those memories in the future.  One recent study showed that musicians suffer less from aging-related memory and hearing losses than non-musicians.  Older study subjects who began music instruction prior to age nine and who continued with their study of an instrument beyond three years had the same processing speeds and memory of much younger subjects.
Our early childhood students, age three through six, learn music within their classroom. Through the sensorial materials in a Montessori classroom, students develop their ability to perceive differences in color, form, dimensions, and pitch. These include the beautiful bells in the Primary Classroom. Through exposure to the bells, Maria Montessori discovered that young children were able to discriminate between different pitches, match identical pitches, grade pitches, acquire a sense of rhythm, hear a pitch and correctly associate it to the name of the note, and read and perform music, when exposed to them during that sensitive period. The benefits of learning to play an instrument through the structured discipline of instrument instruction are most apparent when lessons begin by age seven. For this reason, all Urban Garden students begin violin lessons in first grade. As we introduce electives in the later grades, students will be given the opportunity to continue with violin or choose a different instrument. We are fortunate through our partnership with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra to have some of Arkansas' best musicians teaching our students!

In Part II of this blog topic, we will outline similar research that shows the cognitive benefits of early study of a foreign language.
Montessori Bells in the Primary Classroom at Urban Garden Montessori
Montessori Bells in the Primary Classroom at Urban Garden
Tags: primary lower-elementary upper-elementary curriculum music