Learn a Musical Instrument -- Early

Dave Tutelman  --  October 5, 2015

Learning a musical instrument is the hardest thing we ask of kids below about 10. There is more work before you begin to see and hear satisfying results than almost any other activity. But eventually you do. And the work habits instilled will stay with you the rest of your life.

On October 4, 2015, Tyler Ferrell posted on Facebook a link to an article. The gist was that kids today give up too quickly on things they are not good at. Here is my take on counteracting that effect. It is based on a lot of personal experience with family members (admittedly anecdotal), an observation by a professional recruiter that supports much broader evidence than just the Tutelman clan, and more recently several articles including some formal academic research.

Learn a musical instrument! Early! Start at maybe 5 or 6.

Why? Because learning a musical instrument is the hardest thing we ask of kids below about 10. There is more work before you begin to see and hear results that are satisfying than almost anything you can do. But eventually you are able to play music that is recognizable. The work habits that instills will stay with you the rest of your life.

Around 1980, I was at a party and had a discussion with someone who was a professional head-hunter (that means "corporate recruiter", in case this is a cultural term that folks are unfamiliar with). She specialized in recruiting high-ranking high-tech employees. She stated that her profession had learned that the single biggest correlation to success in such jobs is a hobby of playing a musical instrument. We spent about a half hour trying to figure out why that should be. The closest we could come was working with unfamiliar notation. We didn't come up with a convincing answer, but she still insisted that it was a very strong statistical correlation that her industry used.

The next day, while monitoring my 9-year-old son's piano practice, I realized why. It was unbelievable how determined he was to get through a trouble-spot, despite the obvious huge frustration. He was near tears, but persisted with "trouble attack" skills until he succeeded. At one point, he muttered audibly, "I can do this!"

I feel strongly that piano should be a first instrument for every kid. Other instruments are much easier to learn after piano has been at least somewhat mastered. There are a couple of reasons why.
  1. The most important parts of music are melody, harmony, and rhythm (tempo and timing). Yes there are other things, like timbre and expression, but those first three are head and shoulders above everything else. There are very few instruments that teach all three. Drums, for instance, only teach rhythm of the three. Clarinet (woodwinds, brass, and most strings in general) teach melody and rhythm, but not harmony; with enough band play you can learn harmony, but not from solo practice. The only ones that teach all three are keyboard instruments (such as piano) and some plucked string instruments (such as guitar). They produce multiple simultaneous notes, allowing exploration of both melody and harmony.
  2. There is no problem getting the right note out of a piano, and with an acceptable tone. Just hit a key with your finger. Higher note? Pick a key more to the right. Multiple notes? Hit multiple keys at the same time. Very obvious, intuitive cause and effect. To create one single note on a clarinet requires embouchure, breath control, and can take as many as every finger on both hands. It's just too hard learning to create a single tone -- not enough attention left to actually learn music.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. There's a lot of family experience there. My father, sister, brother, and I all play multiple instruments. So do my sons. For all of us, piano was the first instrument and established a base from which we could learn others. And, of course, developed work habits that are still with us decades later. There is also some serious medical research and other articles that have recently come to my attention, which supports the notion and adds more reasons, neurological reasons, that it should be so. See some of that at the bottom of this page.

That's the end of the message. The next part of this article is to brag a little about my family.... Um... Er... To cite references for my evidence. Yeah, that's the ticket.

The photo is our family's photo Xmas card from 1955. The people, L to R, are me, Dad, sister Ruth, Mom, brother Bob. The caption from our photo album is:
By now, we had branched out to several instruments. I still played piano, but Bob played clarinet and Ruth flute. Note that only Bob has his actual instrument, though Ruth and I could certainly play what we were photographed holding.

Dad was a Juilliard graduate. He realized that supporting a family as a classical pianist was very unlikely, so he also got a teaching degree and was a school teacher and eventually principal. But he was also a working musician on Friday and Saturday nights, augmenting his teacher's income until he became an assistant principal. And while he was teaching, he was always the school's orchestra director.

Even after he stopped playing professionally, he continued in music. When arthritis put an end to playing golf -- too painful -- he kept his hands limber and exercised playing his grand piano. In retirement in Sun City AZ (near Phoenix), he founded and led the Sun City Fine Arts Society, arranging and presenting large concerts with classical, jazz, and pop performers. The organization carried on after him until 2011.

My brother, sister, and I each started piano at age six. We wound up with different instruments -- well, different collections of instruments -- but the first few years of piano taught us how to learn an instrument and what music was about. My wife and I repeated this with our two sons. (She regretted never learning an instrument as a kid, but was a good enough singer to have been in the NY All-City High School Chorus.)

I continued piano for five years, and got tired of practicing the standard stuff. Dad took me away from the classical piano teacher, and started teaching me music theory and improvisation. (Think of it as the organized study of playing by ear.) I thoroughly enjoyed it, and earned some spending money playing piano when I was in high school and college. As a teenager, I also hacked around with baritone ukelele and little woodwinds like recorder and ocarina. I was later able to extend that to banjo and clarinet, but those stories are family-related and I'll tell them as I go.

My brother Bob switched to clarinet after the basic few years of piano. In fact, he and I would play pop and jazz together as teenagers, especially if we could find a drummer to sit in. He also learned and got rather good at guitar, which was extremely useful for folk singing, a staple of my generation. In our twenties we both took a lot of ski trips to Vermont. A favorite activity on the five-hour bus ride was singing, and he was one of two or three guitarists on the bus. I felt we needed something different to spice up the sound, so I got a banjo and learned to play it so I could join them. Today, he is retired from engineering, and spends time as a professional musician on saxophone and clarinet. He is also the musical director and front man for a big band in San Diego; here's a video of what he does.

My sister Ruth was the real musician among us. Yes, she started with piano and stuck with it for a few years. But there were just too many instruments for her to be so limited. She became outstanding at the flute, and was a flute player in the NY All-City High School Orchestra. But in her own high school's orchestra, she didn't always play flute (although she was their best flutist). If they needed piccolo, she played piccolo. On one occasion, the band teacher told her that the orchestra was going to play a piece with a prominent cello part -- and nobody played the cello. He lent her the school cello; she learned how to play it in about a month, and was the featured cellist in that piece. And that was her; she played all sorts of instruments well enough to get recognizable music out of them. At college, she got a degree in music and went on to Indiana University's highly respected music school for a masters degree in conducting.

Supporting the premise of this article -- that musicians do well at technical careers -- let me say a little more about Ruth. She lost her husband tragically young, and found out that teaching music doesn't earn enough to pay a mortgage and raise a daughter. Seeing an employment ad for programming trainees, she applied, passed their test, and was hired. She succeeded very well in software development, including stints as a team leader and a manager. This despite no formal training in science nor technology beyond high school; her college degrees were in music. She retired after a 30-year career in software development.

My sons followed similar trajectories.

The older son (Jeff) started with piano at six. In fifth grade (age about 10) there were group lessons in school for those who wanted to be in the school band. He chose clarinet, and continued with it through high school, where he was in the concert band and the marching band. When he first brought home the rented clarinet (Tyler, you'll like this), he couldn't get a sound out of it. Just blowing into it didn't do anything. Since I was always able to help with piano, he called me in for assistance. Of course, I had never played a reed instrument and had no idea. But between the two of us and the textbook he brought home, we figured it out. The following week, I saw a clarinet at a yard sale and bought it, had it overhauled, and started praciticing with my son. When he brought home a piece to practice for the band, there were usually two clarinet parts. He would play one and I would play the other -- harmony! Then we'd switch parts. We both learned a lot, and it was quality time. It ended that summer, when he chose to go to band camp for two weeks. When he got back, he was much better than I was, and didn't want to practice with me because I couldn't keep up. In high school, in addition to the HS bands, he also played electronic keyboards in a garage rock band. Not much music for him after high school, but I do remember his approach to integral calculus in college; his "I can do this!" was identical to the anecdote about piano practice when he was 9.

My younger son (Dan) also started with piano; no big surprise there. When fifth grade came along, he took up saxophone. In junior high, he played saxophone in the concert band and a smaller performance band, while getting "certified" in piano by the NJ music teachers society. He didn't continue in the high school bands; his extra-curricular activities were the baseball and basketball teams. But he did learn enough guitar on his own to play in a garage rock band through college, including a few paying gigs. He still considers himself a guitarist.

While the boys were learning piano, I made it a point to set a good example for them. I practiced daily myself. I worked on Scott Joplin rags and even some Gershwin pieces (e.g. "Rhapsody In Blue") in addition to improvising pop music. During that period, my chops were the best they ever were. (Chops: slang - the technical skill with which a jazz or rock musician performs.)

Let me end with an anecdote about how the apple does not fall far from the tree.

As a teenager, I used to drive my dad crazy. Like most teens, I would ensconce myself in my room, close the door, and listen to rock'n'roll on the radio at a volume that could be heard outside my room in the hall. Dad didn't consider rock'n'roll to be music; remember his classical training and jazz and pop skills. So that was my typical teen rebellion. And it was a rebellion! If my parents were not home, I played the music I liked rather than the music I knew they disliked. Alone in the apartment, my radio usually played not rock but jazz and occasionally classical music.

My younger son loved not just rock, but heavy metal. Metallica, Guns and Roses, etc. Since he was a rock guitarist himself, he would play heavy metal groups incessantly on the stereo. Not my music at all; I didn't make a fuss about it, but he knew how I felt. While he was in college (locally, only about 40 minutes away), I went to his dorm room to drop something off for him. I stopped at the door and listened to the sound coming from the stereo in his room. Andres Segovia, playing classical guitar. Sound familiar?

Other endorsements of early music instruction, including serious research

In June of 2017, I got into an email discussion with Irene Simonsen-Davis and my sister Ruth Disraeli, about how childhood music affects later career performance. Between them they have three degrees in music and each has teaching experience as well. They pointed out to me some neurological reasons that my assertion should be true, and started me looking for articles in the medical and professional literature. I did find a few.

Irene's main point was:
The arts are primarily a "right brain" activity. However, music is the only one that requires both the left and right brain to work together, thereby strengthening those neuro connections. This is why kids who begin music instruction early go on to achieve higher test scores in reading and math.
With that as the topic, I was able to find a piece of medical research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that supports the idea that childhood musical training changes brain activity in a way that increases math proficiency. They did fMRI studies of subjects with and without childhood musical instrument experience, while they worked on a math problem. They saw a decided difference between the two groups in activation of certain areas of the brain.

As it turns out, there are a bunch of studies like this one, all supporting the idea that musicians' brains are different. I found an article on the Healthy Hearing web site citing quite a few very relevant studies. There was one such study that directly confirms Irene's assertion that the left-brain/right-brain connection is stronger for musicians. From that article:
Researchers noted that the differences were especially obvious among musicians who had started training before the age of seven. Their corpus callosum, a pathway consisting of millions of nerve fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres, is 10 to 15 percent thicker than in non-musicians, or even those who started training later in life.
So it's not enough to just be a musician, but a musician who started before the age of 7.

Ruth related a personal experience.
In 1977, when I applied for a job in computer programming (with absolutely no background, BTW), the man who was eventually my manager said he'd just read about a study done by IBM examining which college majors produced the best programmers. Number two was a major in Computer Science. Number one? Music! He hired me on the spot, luckily, and I got to retire from that career almost 30 years later. 
I was not able to find that IBM study, but I did find an IBM want ad from as early as 1956, demonstrating they believed the assertion even back then. The illustration containing the ad was from a blog about the connection between musicianship and technical employment.

Finally, I found a wonderful and very accessible article on why musicians make the best programmers. Among the points author Kathleen Melymuka makes:
  • Musical aptitude is one of the strongest predictors of success in a technical position. She cites several college placement officers for this statement.
  • There seems to be a high correlation between musical ability and reasoning skills. It has to do with recognizing and manipulating patterns. That happens in music and in programming.
  • Some say the real correlation has less to do with discrete aptitudes than with the way technical people think: they favor spatial/temporal reasoning, or the ability to visualize. If you're good at one of the higher brain functions that involve the spatial/temporal aspect, you're going to be good at the others. To construct a good program, you want to be able to see the consequences in your head, not just do line by line of the code. You have to be able to totally visualize it. (Dave Tutelman note: Just taking myself as an anecdotal data point, I have a very good professional record in several technical fields, including programming, electronic engineering, and engineering design of golf clubs. As for music and spatial visualization: I started piano at age 6, and every assessment I've taken for spatial visualization puts me in the high-90s percentile.)
So by now, it seems pretty well accepted by anybody who has seriously considered the question that learning a musical instrument early is excellent preparation for a tech career -- and, I would guess, most careers that require mental discipline and logical, organized thinking.

Last changed --  March 26, 2018