There's no time or place we know of in human history without evidence of music. Some scientists believe that music existed among people before language did. Whether, in the end, music makes us smart, or smarter, may not be the point. What may be the point: We need music -- it's food for thought.
"I've looked at the research, and there's very little support for music increasing math skills, language skills, or overall academic achievement," says Robert Cutietta, Ph.D., author of Raising Musical Kids.
Cutietta, who's nonetheless passionate about the importance of music, explains Shaw's findings as correlational, not causal. "Kids who learn to play an instrument like the piano, and who practice, learn motivation and discipline, the things you need to succeed. That's why they may score better on certain tests," he says.
"Still, we need music, not because it will improve us," he says, "but because it's a part of who we are, a part of our human cultural heritage." Music as pleasure, as portal to grace; music as spirit, not brain. Anyone who's ever heard the rising of Beethoven's Fifth, or the way a song by Cyndi Lauper can bring you back to the melancholy of sixth grade, the sound dissolving time -- anyone who's ever felt music transport her this way would agree. Whether or not music makes us smarter, without a doubt it lends a certain light to the landscape of our lives, our children's lives.
"I didn't introduce my son to music because I wanted to improve his academic acumen," says Karen Hurwitz of Cambridge, Massachusetts, mom of 5-year-old Isaac. "I did it because music is an integral part of our Jewish culture, and I wanted him to know the Sabbath melodies and the folk songs. Plus, I wanted him to have an outlet for his energy."
Isaac is a high-spirited little boy, and as his mother and I speak, he's busy in a corner of the living room using a keyboard and a pair of bongo drums, grinning as the deep beats echo in the room. "Before we gave Isaac the means to make music, he would hit and kick. His teachers at preschool told me he had a problem managing his impulses. Now I tell him to make his anger into sound, and he does, with the drums. I suggest he make his cheerfulness into sound, happy sounds, and he does, with the triangle. Music helped him direct emotions, name them, and control them."
Here's an example of music for the sake of itself, and not for some test. Whether, ultimately, you make music a part of your child's life because you believe that a little melody may bring your child closer to the fast track or because you want to engage her heart and mind, the results will probably be the same. Your child will learn about the world by mastering a small, specific piece of it.
She'll learn about the rhythms that tether us to our days, and about scales that bring us up into the highest region where sound turns into silence, and down into the low place we call sadness. With music, your child will learn how to use her voice.
Lauren Slater is the author of Love Works Like This: Moving From One Kind of Life to Another and the mom of 4-year-old Clara.