What good are piano lessons?

I believe they are called “blanket statements”.

“Taking piano lessons is good for you / your child / your IQ / etc.”

You’ve heard it, perhaps tried to heed that advice.  Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t.

While there is some research on the topic, the problem is that “Piano lessons are good for you” is as accurate as “Eating food will make you fat”. Everyone knows that, yes indeed, some food will make you fat, but it also depends on how much of which food we are talking about. People don’t seem to be that descerning when it comes to piano lessons. Piano lessons are good for you, right?


Remember the adage, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent”? I’d like to add, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Good piano lessons are good for you.

Some 40 years ago, after my first piano teacher with whom I had studied for only a year or two got married and moved away, we were faced with the challenge of finding a new teacher. Our piano tuner, a gentle and quiet man, recommended his mother. I don’t know what her qualifications were, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this woman taught piano lessons on a tall and dark upright piano in a dark corner of her dark living room; piano lessons that for a while destroyed my love for the piano.

While my first teacher, a young and enthusiastic woman, was good (which I didn’t realize until much much later when I read through some of the assignments she had written), I didn’t really learn how to practice. I was kind of lucky – or perhaps not, depending on how you look at it -, because I had some talent, and excellent ears, and faked my way through the note-reading exercises. My new teacher would get upset about my lack of sight-reading skills, urging me during our dreaded four-hand sight-reading sessions sternly, “Keep going!!!” – which is exactly what someone with no sight-reading skills can not do.

Sight-reading was not the only thing I wasn’t good at. I had no clue what it meant to practice. If I did sit down at the piano between lessons, I’d play through a couple of songs, usually not the ones I was assigned because those were “hard” and I didn’t know them, I didn’t know what they were supposed to sound like, and I didn’t know how to practice and I didn’t like them anyway. I had no sense of rhythm, I couldn’t count. My teacher managed to identify my weaknesses but that’s where she stopped; she was unable to help me overcome them. All in a tense, rigid, dark atmosphere. What I learned from her was that I wasn’t good enough. I hated lessons, and I still hadn’t learned how to practice, nor how to read, nor count.

After a while, I don’t remember how long I took lessons, my mother who by nature and nurture does not quit (“You started it, now you stick with it!”) said, “You know, if you want to stop lessons with her, that would be ok.”  She also made sure that, after a break (one year?), I auditioned with a new teacher who then became not only my new piano teacher, but also mentor, guide, coach, and solid rock in my tumultuous teenage years. I was lucky.


Perhaps because I love music and the piano in particular, and I love learning and studying and teaching, I think that we do not need any outside reason to study music. If studying the piano does help with math, languages, etc., then all the better, but that shouldn’t be the main reason to take piano lessons.

Another aspect:

Neurologist Oliver Sacks (author of case-history collections such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), during an interview about his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, had the following answer to one of the interviewer’s questions:

From the perspective of neurological development, is it important to give music lessons to your kids?

Sacks: One can become a creative and good human being without music lessons. But it does look as if fairly intensive musical training can promote the development of various parts of the brain, which may facilitate other non-musical cognitive powers.

Please note the first part of his answer. Also note the fact that he specifically says “fairly intensive musical training” (not just any old piano lesson) and says, “can promote” and “may facilitate”. A much more realistic answer, and therefore more honest, than the blanket “piano lessons are good for you.”


Sad update, just two days later: Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. He talks about it here.