Are Music Lessons Worth The Money?

03/09/2014 12:10 | Updated 20 May 2015

The House Dad Chronicles: Why millions of parents like me are living their childhood dreams through their kids

Are music lessons worth the money?

I thought so and have been happy to shell out £100 a term for the past two years, partly because of what I'd read from boffins who say playing music is beneficial to a child's learning ability (despite the fact another boffin says learning to play a musical instrument has no effect on academic achievement).

Is that all it's about, though? Isn't the real gift of music what it does to a person's soul, not what it does to their mind?

None of those boffins was there to bear witness to what happened when my shy, retiring boy with a guitar and stomach full of butterflies began to play...but more of that later.

For the last two years, my nearly 10-year-old son has been learning to play guitar.

He didn't ask to do this. I made him – because I thought it would be good for him.

My dad bought me a guitar off the back of a lorry when I was 13 and now, at the age of 50, it is the best therapy for the woes of life I've ever come across.

Feeling stressed? Have a strum. Feeling down? Play some blues. Feel like being annoying? Play American Pie while your partner's watching The Great British Bake-Off.

My musical career never amounted to much. Actually, it never amounted to anything.

When I was 17, I was in a band and we played one gig to 10 bored teenagers. And that was that.

And it was probably partly because of that that I wanted my eldest son to learn to play guitar properly.

My mum and dad couldn't afford to pay for lessons for me, and my comprehensive school didn't facilitate a tutor, so I taught myself. Not very well.

But schools are more artsy now; more progressive.

So for the princely sum of a tenner a week (the cost of a couple of pints in London), I pay for my boy to have guitar lessons.

He wasn't keen at first. Pressing on the nylon strings made his fingertips hurt; he'd rather be on the Xbox; he preferred sticking rusty pins in his eyes.

But, unlike me, I wanted him to know a crotchet from a quaver; a clef from a staff.

I wanted him to both learn to play and read music – because I thought it would give him confidence.

My boy is a quiet lad. Always at the back in school plays, never puts his hand up in class.

His Year 4 teacher said as much in his end-of-year report.

"He needs to be more vocal about his ideas," she wrote.

Translation: "He needs to be more gobby to compete with his super-confident classmates."

But I don't want him to be more vocal, or loud, or hands-permanently 'Look At Me, Miss' raised.

I want him to be himself: quiet, polite, loyal and lovely.

At the same time, I'd just like him not to be so shy.

Which is where music comes in. I firmly believe that learning a musical instrument is a gift.

It expands your creativity, imposes the discipline of commitment, and if you learn to read music too, enhances your mathematical ability.

And if you're good enough, it can get you girls (although that never worked for me).

But my rationale is flawed, according to Prof Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist from the University of Toronto, who studied the link between musical training and intelligence in a group of 130 children, aged 10 to 12.

The professor and his team said claims that learning music boosts children's IQ and helps them perform better at school can't possibly be true.

It isn't musical ability that makes kids high achievers, - but their privileged background.

His team studied whether the association could be explained by two key personality traits, conscientiousness and openness to new experiences.

Prof Schellenberg explained: "We were motivated by the fact that kids who take music lessons are particularly good students, in school they actually do better than you would predict from their IQ, so obviously something else is going on and we thought that personality might be the thing."

He said the association between music lessons and intelligence was mainly down to the children's personalities.

Prof Schellenberg added: "What this means is that kids who take music lessons have different personalities, and many or virtually all of the findings that have shown links between music and cognition may be an artefact of individual differences in personality.

"You can explain almost all of the data that are out there by saying that high-functioning kids take music lessons."

He said the findings show that paying for a child to take music lessons purely for the presumed educational benefit is a 'complete waste of time', adding: "Primarily the associations are driven from the other direction, in that people with specific personalities and with higher levels of cognitive abilities and from more well-off families are more likely to take music lessons."

It seems like a sound argument but also a depressing one. In a nutshell: musical kids are clever kids; music will not make unmotivated, thick kids clever. Well, I beg to differ.

Except to me and his mum, our oldest boy is nothing special. An average kid, a decent kid. He might set the world on fire one day, but I haven't seen him with a box of matches yet.

But I have seen a spark of something that playing guitar gives him - and I'm not alone in believing that making music isn't just for the privileged.

Music specialist Meredith LeVande of said: "More and more studies show a correlation between higher academic achievement with children who are exposed to music.

"Music simply stimulates parts of the brain that are related to reading, math, and emotional development."

Eduardo Marturet, a conductor, composer and musical director for the Miami Symphony Orchestra, said: "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."

Eduardo said music also helps children socially, saying: "Socially, children who become involved in a musical group or ensemble learn important life skills, such as how to relate to others, how to work as a team and appreciate the rewards that come from working together, and the development of leadership skills and discipline."

And best of all, it's a confidence builder.

Elizabeth Dotson-Westphalen, a music teacher and performer, said: "They find that they can develop a skill by themselves, that they can get better and better."

The latter is what I've found more than any other benefit. From this Housedad's perspective, encouraging/cajoling my nearly son into playing the guitar has been the best parenting decision I have ever made.

Because this week, for his school's end-of-year assembly, he was selected to play solo on the guitar I bought him for his ninth birthday.

The night before, my shy, quiet, unconfident boy was so terrified of the 'ordeal' that awaiting him, he had a quiet weep as I put him to bed. So I gave him this pep talk:

"Son, nerves are a good thing. The best guitarists in the world are terrified of going on stage; the best footballers in the world are even sick before they go out to play; the best tennis players have to go to the toilet 50 times before they're so scared; the best public speakers retch before they address an audience.

"But then they start, and those nerves take them to a whole new level of performance. They play or sing or speak like they never dreamed possible and they realise that, far from people wanting them to fail, everyone in the audience is willing them to succeed.

"And then, before it's over, you feel brilliant about yourself – and you'll want to do it again. And then you'll feel nervous again, but you'll succeed again. Over and over again."

And so it came to pass.

On the morning of the assembly, there were butterflies, there was anxiety, there was even a feeling of wanting to retch – but all those emotions were mine.

For my son was as focused as a sunbeam through a magnifying glass. And when he performed, he wasn't just good, he was brilliant – and the audience of mums, dads and peers showed their appreciation.

"How was it, son?" I asked him, when he came over for a hug afterwards.

He replied, beaming: "Brilliant, Dad. I just kept thinking of what you said and just played. I want to do it again and again."

Playing a musical instrument might not make my boy an academic genius – the boffins are probably right about that - but it has given him the confidence to believe that he can do anything if he puts his mind to it.

And that's more than good enough for me to continue forking out £100 a term for the foreseeable future.


Staying In
Suggest a correction