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Book Review: Music Makes Your Child Smarter by Philip Sheppard

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When musician, parent, and music educator Philip Sheppard undertook the writing of Music Makes Your Child Smarter his working title was Can Music Make Your Child Smarter? Though already intensively involved in music in all areas of his life, Sheppard wanted to explore the question from a position of skepticism. As he researched and wrote, however, he came to the undeniable conclusion that forms the book’s current title.

Presented in two parts, Sheppard lays out the evidence for the effect of music upon the developing minds of children, with a particular focus on those ages seven and under. Sheppard isn’t talking about a Mozart Effect approach, which Sheppard points out is founded upon questionable research data. The evidence he shares about the effects of music upon the growing mind are most evident when music is actively explored, played with, and experienced first hand — not through passively listening to classical music in the background.

The first half of the book, wherein Sheppard lays out his arguments, combines research findings with his own personal anecdotes as teacher, musician, and parent. I found the writing in this section to be somewhat choppy, at times repetitive, and, due to the lack of footnotes, sounding more like personal conviction than a quantitatively measured argument.

The book does include a research list and bibliography in the appendix, but without end notes it is difficult to line up research papers with the points that Sheppard has made in the text. Still, no parent reading his arguments will be able to walk away without a niggling feeling that they must do something to encourage the development of their child’s natural capacity for music before the crucial age of seven.

The second half of Music Makes Your Child Smarter explores activities from pre-birth to early elementary (up to age nine), with a brief introduction to the options available for formal music lessons as children grow.

Eschewing the popularly held belief that passively listening to the classics will somehow make your baby smarter, Sheppard’s goal is to instead encourage parents to step up and fill the role as first music teacher by engaging children in active music making, musical play, integration with art, and a wide array of other simple activities.

Broken into age groups, Sheppard starts with simple lullabies sung by parents to unborn children, moves into musical games, finger plays, and motion songs, then into homemade instruments, spontaneous composition games, body percussion, and children increase in age. A parent armed with the suggested activities found within the pages of the book and the samples on the included CD (with cello performances by Sheppard himself) will be able to jump in with only this resource at their disposal and start enjoying music with their children.

An oddity that I noticed was that some of the longer songs in the book — some with several pages of lyrics — were not included on the CD, though the tunes were unfamiliar to me. In many cases the tunes are provided, and, for some that are very well known, the lyrics serve as a reminder to parents who may have forgotten classics from their own childhoods — no tunes necessary.

For parents whose children are ready to move into formal instruction, Sheppard provides a breakdown of the most popular instruments, along with ratings for “startability,” expense, and his own commentary about versatility, transition to other instruments, and any special considerations to take into account. Sheppard also moves far beyond the classical range with suggestions for additional listening from genres ranging from jazz, rock, disco, and the classics, too, of course.

The combination of Sheppard’s text with the accompanying 53 track CD provides a comprehensive introductory-level overview to early-childhood music education for parents. Any parent who puts the exercises held within to use with their children is sure to be met with an enthusiastic response from their little ones and lay the foundation for a life-long appreciation of music.

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About Jennifer Bogart

  • Many research has been made earlier regarding the same topic and many research scientist hae proved that music does improve the brain development. And TEACHING children more music at school improves their ability to learn language and social skills, say Swiss educational researchers. A study of 1200 children in Switzerland found that those who were given extra music lessons performed better than those who were not.

    Music can have a positive influence on the emotions, according to Maria Spychiger, a psychologist from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

    Nice info… Thanks for sharing..

  • Hoasjoe

    Based on experience playing with a local band, music in a group setting is a liberating experience. This is not an elitist passion only the well-to-do can enjoy. You practice with people from all walks of life every week.

    Children who are enrolled in a group music program like Suzuki & Yamaha do encourage them to develop social skills. I think the author should emphasize music-making involving 2 or more people together.

    On the other hand, I have seen people who had private music instructions lacking social skills. I know 2 boys who had private lessons (1 a violin and the other on piano). Although they decided not to become professional musicians, both had extensive training in Classical music and passed various levels of conservatory exams. When we had dinner together as friends of the family, they would have nothing more to say than “Hello, how are you?” like someone who only communicates by texting with digital devices.

    1 interesting fact based on an article in a local newspaper: when recordings of Classical music was played in public places including subway stations, shopping areas, the crime rate went down. Probably the soothing effect discouraged people from committing crime. I have nothing against other types of music as Jazz, Rock or Rap blasting in public places but this was what people observed.

  • S. Bauer

    The author suggested it is best for children to get their music education by age 7 based on scientific research on the brain. On the other hand, science derive theories and not absolute facts.

    I think music learning (singing or playing an instrument) can start at a much later age. For practical reasons older people have more responsibilities. We need to focus on academics, career goals and then family and household duties. A child in the lower grade levels can easily set aside a few hours a day for piano practice that would otherwise be used for video games or TV viewing.

    I know someone who started learning French in his late 40s after work and then Japanese (a difficult language) in his spare time. In a few years he managed to pass the Level 1 entrance exam for a Japanese U. People half his age thinks he is an old man. I think if you have enough free time and inclination, you can learn music or a foreign language. Of course not everyone can be a concert pianist at a later age but I don’t believe in an artificial yardstick you can’t start learning music if you are older than age 7.

    In the past 10 years certain types of music became more in fashion due to popular media. Shows like “American Idol” and “Britain Got Talent” promotes people who sing like Rock stars to careers in music than those who play Classical pieces like Tchaikovsky or Mozart Concertos.

  • M. Takahashi

    In Ch. 25 under the section: “When should children learn an instrument?” the author stated that teachers recommended they should learn to read first. Totally unnecessary…

    The Japanese educator who founded the Suzuki music learning system had proven that kids can learn an instrument by imitating sound patterns. Notations can be introduced later. Watching a video of someone playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Perpetual Motion” on a violin or piano using the Suzuki method is like watching someone doing aerobic exercises.

    Like teaching a child to speak the child will learn the red object of a specific shape to be an apple before the spelling A-P-P-L-E. As long as you can get a child to sit still, you can get him/her to play.

  • M Cooper

    The back section the author gave a list of instruments and their ratings. The list is too general and lacking detail explanations.

    For any instrument there are the high-end and the low-end. For example: you can have a Stradivarius violin or a Gibson guitar as opposed to something with a much lower price tag. The same with pianos where you can be paying a fortune for a Steinway, Bosendofer or Fazioli.

    And the author should put pianos and keyboards in separate sections instead of lumping them together in 1 section: “Pianos and Keyboards”. Since an acoustic pianos are more expensive, he should put more stars and fewer stars for a keyboard beside price.

    Yes, a piano has a natural sound but according to Roland, some of their keyboards come incredibly close to a real piano sound. And probably when the book was written, keyboards with weighed-keys that feels like those on acoustic pianos were uncommon. Now they are widely available, just cost more more. Always keep yourself informed the latest technologies…

    Rental? depending on the instrument. Electronic keyboards are so cheap that it is virtually unnecessary to rent (especially the 2nd-hand ones). You’ll be surprised that people do return perfectly brand-new instruments for more suitable ones after using for a week. You get discounts for open box items.

  • M Schneider

    For a child at a young age, learning to play any instrument would be a challenge. I think learning to play a piano even at the basic level should be done in conjunction with your instrument of choice if it is something other than a piano.

    I learned to play a violin back in high school, joined the school ensemble. My music teacher said if you wanted to continue your music education at the college level, you should bring your piano-playing up to a certain grade level.

    Personally never became a pro musician. I do play a violin with a local band and managed to pick up basic keyboard-playing skills many years later.

    Sounds like my music teacher made a good point. It is much easier to learn music theories on a piano / keyboard. And if you are seriously considering becoming a composer / songwriter, you can put complex arrangements together with your left doing the bass and right doing the melody line. Impossible to do on a trumpet or clarinet and other similar instruments that you can only play 1 note at a time.

  • C. Knight

    The author made the point you should not promote Classical music as the only type of music available.

    Back in my school days I went to a number of talent shows where students sang Rock n’ Roll tunes with electric guitars blasting sounds at high decibels. I have nothing against Pop music but feel that kids should be exposed to different types of music. The popular media tend to push for Rock or Rap giving the impression of instant fame & fortune without hard work (Like Justin Bieber or Clay Aiken on “American Idol”).

    I do find playing Classical music require focus (concentration) and discipline that is often absentplaying other types of music. Scientists / researchers are trying to link playing music to higher academic achievements later in life. You can make the connection when children learn to play Mozart, Beethoven or Bach but I don’t think playing songs by the Beatles would raise your math or SAT scores (maybe I’m wrong).

    In the movie: “Music of the Heart”, teacher Roberta Guaspari started a successful violin program in a Harlem school. When the school board wanted to cut budget for the music program, parents had a meeting arguing that playing music in school helped their kids academically (Classical of course).

    Rosemary Nalden from England started the successful music program call Buskaid in the Townships of S. Africa. The ensemble of string players focus on Classical music.

    Even if you are into popular music, don’t leave out Classical which might be old-fashion works by bygone composers. But at least kids learn discipline which is beneficial later in life…

  • piano

    The author brought up a good point that teaching kids to play music is about getting them to “make music”. A lot of parents send their kids to piano or violin classes as if these are substitute daycare centres.

    I know 1 couple who enrolled their son to the Yamaha music program. Like the Suzuki program, the parents get involve by learning to play at the same time so that they can teach their kids at home. The original intention is good but after reviewing the song and exercise books I get a bit disappointed. For the first few months the 10 year-old boy learn to play scales with his parents taking on the role of “teachers” at home. He gets so bored that most of the time you have to push him just to sit in front of a piano.

    I think parental involvement is a good idea but at the same time the parents should learn to play other instruments such as drums, xylophone or recorder or learn to sing so that everybody can work together but in a different part of the “ensemble”. A piano is more of a solo instrument but a violin at least you can play duets. Even if they are parents you should not assume they should take on the role of supervisors than equal team members.