Thomas Südhof, neuroscientist and professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University, won this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology along with two others for their pioneering work in cellular physiology. In an interview to the Lancet, when asked who his most influential teacher was, Südhof mentioned, not, as one would expect, one of his medical school professors, but Herbert Tauscher, his bassoon teacher from his childhood in Hanover! And why? Tauscher taught him an important lesson. That “the only way to do something right is to practice and listen, practice and listen, hours, and hours, and hours.”

His comment underscores brilliantly how music education teaches a child so much more than just music. It makes a strong case for incorporating the study of music early on in a child’s life. Right now this is happening too late, and too haphazardly when it does, in India.

A cross-sectional study of Canadian schoolchildren by E. Glenn Schellenberg published in the journal Brain in 2006 concluded that children who received musical instruction excelled above their peers in memory skills as well as in non-musical abilities such as literacy, mathematics, temporal-spatial tasks and even IQ. They also demonstrated increased verbal comprehension and better high school grades.

According to the National Association for Music Education (USA), students taking their SAT exams who have a background involving music education score 56 points higher on the verbal portion and 39 point higher on the math portion of the test over their non-musically trained counterparts.

Thomas Jefferson famously played his violin to overcome mental blocks while drafting the Declaration of Independence. Albert Einstein turned to his violin as well when working on his groundbreaking theories.

Bulgarian educator and psychiatrist Georgi Lozanov developed a revolutionary learning/teaching theory called “suggestopedia”, pedagogy through suggestion, in which music plays a pivotal role. It operates on the principle that Baroque and Classical music (especially those works with a tempo of around 60 beats/minute) stimulate both brain hemispheres, left and right, thereby optimising learning and information retention.

Napoleon instinctively recognised the power of music even over collective consciousness when he said, “Give me control over he who shapes the music of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws.”

Howard Earl Gardner, developmental psychologist at Harvard University has propounded the theory of “Multiple Intelligences”, stating that not only do human beings have several different ways of learning and processing information, but these methods are relatively independent of one another. Therefore there are eight intelligences (linguistic, logic-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic) and musical intelligence is just as vital to us as all the others.

A study by researchers at UCLA (University of California) in the 1990s compared the relative benefit of music versus computer lessons on two demographically similar groups of preschoolers. Children who spent eight months in front of a piano keyboard improved their scores on a puzzle-solving test; kids who spent the same amount of time in front of a computer keyboard saw no gains.

Recent research also indicates that musicians have significantly more grey matter in several brain regions (Schlaug et al 2005), and the effects of music lessons seem to increase with the intensity of training.

Extensive research over the last decade has conclusively revealed that musicians perform significantly better on tests of spatial-temporal skills, math ability, reading skills, vocabulary, verbal memory and phonemic awareness (Schellenberg 2006; Patel and Iverson 2007).

Finally, a new study of older adults–aged 65-80–found a correlation between childhood music training and cognitive performance. The more years a person had spent playing an instrument, the better he performed on tests of word recall, visual (nonverbal) memory, and cognitive flexibility (Hanna-Pladdy and Mackay 2011).

Tom Home, Superintendent for Public Instruction for the state of Arizona sums it up best: “When you think about the purposes of education, there are three. We’re preparing kids for jobs. We’re preparing them to be citizens. And we’re teaching them to be human beings who can enjoy the deeper forms of beauty. The third is as important as the other two.”

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 20 October 2013)