In 1996, I began to hear my wife (Denie Riggs) talk about the importance of piano lessons for brain function enhancement. Though I did not scoff at this, I assumed she was probably just promoting her profession, something I was totally in favor of her doing. I frankly didn’t give much thought to the accuracy of the type of statements I heard her make about piano lessons “enhancing brain function”, “stimulating brain activity”, and promoting “academic excellence”.
I began teaching guitar for her at the Muscle Shoals Music Academy, Inc. in 1997. As a teacher I was just as excited about students learning guitar as I was their learning the piano—for that matter I was just as excited about students taking violin, voice, drums, any instrument.
As we began Early Childhood Music ® give them the best start, we began to put more emphasis on preschoolers learning to play piano and not just taking music lessons—again, this was for brain function enhancement. As we did, I began to put more thought into what we were actually saying about the value of piano lessons over other instruments, and why we were saying it. As I have continued to receive more and more insight about this, and to observe the amazing intellectual achievements of graduates from our program, I have come to the following conclusions:
Playing piano absolutely does offer more brain function enhancement and brain activity than other instruments, simply because playing piano engages more of the brain than other instruments. When you play piano you are not just using one hand intensely but both the right and left hand—more brain activity is unavoidable. Reading music (as opposed to playing by ear or memory) is one of the main ways music enhances brain function. When a person plays the piano reading music they are not reading just one staff of music but two staffs—treble and bass clefs. This to me is the equivalent of reading two lines of written words at one time (if you don’t believe me, try the two and compare for yourself.) More brain activity is, again, inevitable. Then, in our Early Childhood Music program we encourage our students to sing while playing the piano. This adds yet another level of brain function or activity, and enhancement. Then there’s the metronome, something we require the use of for students to meet proficiency requirements and pass the program.
So… when a person plays the piano, singing while they play, they are experiencing brain stimulation from 1) right hand playing, 2) left hand playing, 3) reading treble clef, 4) reading bass clef (another language of written music, 5) hearing music, 6) singing or vocal activities, 7) and metronome therapy. (Not to mention using the pedal but we don’t introduce that in our ECM program.)
Right hand, left hand, right eye, left eye—just teasing—two staffs of different music (called the grand staff), hearing, singing: all these activities are causing a huge amount of brain activity. And it’s just hard to match that level of brain activity with any other instrument played.
And, by the way, I’m a guitar player first, and that’s my favorite instrument. However, I always recommend that students start with piano and then they can add other instruments to their music resume’. I had a foundation of piano as a child and it has made everything I do musically much easier, and I feel the benefit of the brain activity when I play the piano.
~Michael David Riggs