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Neuroscience and Suzuki:Brain Development from Age Zero, and the Impact of Early Childhood Music Ed


“Limitless potential.” “Ability begins from age zero.” “Every child can.” How many times have we heard these philosophical Suzuki ideas? Over the last several decades, neuroscience has confirmed much of what Suzuki believed through the study of the developing brain.

The three pillars of Suzuki method philosophy include:

  • Every Child Can Learn

  • Ability Develops Early

  • Environment Nurtures Growth

As Suzuki parents, we don’t necessarily need scientific evidence to convince us that music education is good for our child’s brain. We can see the benefits right before our eyes, just the way Suzuki had. However, when we think about music education, we typically start this conversation about our children from age 3, 4, or 5. What would happen if we took the Suzuki philosophy and immersed our babies within it? What is it about babies, and how their brains develop, that makes them the perfect candidates for musical education? We can find the answers to many of these questions in neuroscientific discoveries about the developing infant’s brain.

With their decades of research, neuroscientists have affirmed what Suzuki long surmised: humans are a nurture-based species. While other life forms, such as bacteria, are destined to their fate as determined by their genetics, our life exposure and experiences determine whether or not our hereditary genes become expressed.

Additionally, scientists have learned that the brain’s architecture is built from the ground up. Our early life experiences create neural connections that become the structure of our brain, and more intricate cognitive functions are built on top. The basic connections of synapses occur most rapidly in our first year of life, and each year decrease. The photo below highlights this dramatic difference. Pictured side by side: Neural connections in the cerebral cortex of a child at birth, 6 years, and 14 years. By the age of 6 years the connections are most dense, and by 14 they have begun to parse off.

Conel, JL. The postnatal development of the human cerebral cortex. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

This means that it is much more difficult to go back and rewire a child’s brain (e.g., a child who has been exposed to adverse life circumstances: toxic stress, neglect, and/or abuse) at age 16 than it is to help the same child when they are 4 or 5. Of course learning is always possible, at any age, and new neural connections continue to grow until the last days of our lives, just more slowly than before.

Our brains develop through what are called “serve and return” interactions. For example when a baby babbles, gestures, smiles or cries, and an adult reacts or responds appropriately with eye contact, loving words, or a hug, healthy neural connections and pathways are built and strengthened. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a child’s needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return dynamics, and brain development flourishes. Think of all of the educational toys, TV shows, apps, games, and devices that are on the marketplace. Though many of them tout their educational benefits, without a nurturing adult to provide any return interactions, their educational impact is minimal at best.

The lack of these serve and return interactions can happen for many reasons. While we all know babies raised in cases of neglect, extreme poverty or abuse are at high risk, stress can also be caused in children as a result of lessening quality time with parents, changes to family dynamics, and stress in the parents themselves, eventually leading to what’s called toxic stress. Toxic stress, when occurring in early childhood, leads to weaker and lessened neural pathways in the brain, negatively affecting the child greatly in later years with learning and social disorders, and even physical and mental illnesses.

Knowing that the brain is most flexible the younger we are, one of our largest goals as parents and educators is to help children develop self regulation and executive function. When we’re able to access these functions, our brains are working at their most evolved states. Taking place primarily in our prefrontal cortex, these are the skills that allow us to plan ahead, set goals, focus our attention, and juggle multiple tasks...hmm, that sounds familiar! Self regulation and executive function skills rely on working memory, mental flexibility, awareness, and self-control. We’re not born with these skills, we learn them! We begin learning them from infancy, and they are fully formed by age 30.

For over two decades, there has been a belief that there is a strong connection between classical music and brain development in infants (think back to the popularity of 1997’s Mozart Effect). The Mozart Effect was later debunked, because with a lack of interaction, or serve and return dynamics, this was just a passive, non-interactive activity. However, neuroscientists didn't give up. They knew there was an undeniable connection between music and the brain. Through MRI scans, they found that musician’s brain functions and structures literally looked different than non-musician brains. Musicians were found to have a larger bridge connecting both hemispheres, right and left, which allowed messages to travel faster across the corpus callosum, and in far more creative pathways.  Musicians were able to solve puzzles more imaginatively, had higher levels of executive function, increased attention, and more highly developed memory systems.

Knowing that music is one of the most, if not the most, impactful workouts for the brain, neuroscientists wanted to discover how active music engagement with babies might help to develop high level brain function, brain architecture, and to promote prosocial behaviors, as well as laying the foundation for musical study.  According to one study published in the Journal of Developmental Science 15:3 (2012), neuroscientists studied 6 month old babies over a 6 month period that participated in a weekly interactive music curriculum with parental involvement (Suzuki Early Childhood Education), compared to those that were passively exposed to music in a class with a professionally trained musician. The results were astonishing! They found that babies involved in the active music class tended to smile more, communicate better, show earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music, showed less distress during unfamiliar activities, or when things didn’t go their way, and had increased abilities of focus and concentration.  In another 2014 study (Cirelli, Wan & Trainor), 14 month old infants were found to be more helpful after bouncing in-sync with an adult, supporting the idea that active music engagement helps promote prosocial behaviors.

Amazing right?  Knowing all that we do about the developing infant brain, it’s no surprise to see the impact that active music engagement can have on babies.  Having both grown up as Suzuki violin kids that became Suzuki teachers, we know first hand how transformative being a musician as a child can be. In addition to learning an art that we loved, having a tool for self-expression that was our own, making new friends through musical experiences, we now see our peers enjoying wildly successful personal and professional lives. To us, the value of music education and its impact on society and community, is an undeniable fact. As we and our loved ones began to grow our families, we asked ourselves how we could best help these amazing little beings. We began looking toward Suzuki Early Childhood Education (SECE), knowing that it was the perfect approach to help a child prepare for instrumental Suzuki lessons. Once we went through training, we realized that SECE was not only the perfect way to prepare a child for musical education, but to prepare them for all future learning, and that these findings are firmly rooted in neuroscience. The SECE curriculum, in particular, uses music to create an environment that is rich in serve and return dynamics, executive function and self regulation skill building, language development, and prosocial behaviors, all while supporting the loving interaction between parent and child.

Re-examining Suzuki’s three pillars of talent education, Every Child Can Learn, Ability Develops Early, and Environment Nurtures Growth, we now see that his ideas about education are scientifically verifiable. As Suzuki kids, teachers, and parents, how thrilling it is to have this incredible concrete evidence! His primary mission, in response to the devastation of global warfare (World War II), was to create beautiful hearts, and noble souls. Imagine a world where all children, regardless of privilege, race, culture, or ability, had access to the very best musical education from birth. Indeed, with science’s neurological findings to back us, we can say that giving every child the healthiest foundation for learning has the very real potential to change the world.

Additional Reading & Resources

Growth Mindset Neuroscience by Stefanie Faye Frank