My four-year-old son was James the train for Halloween.

Don’t know who James the train is? Well, neither did literally any other person that we met on Halloween. Let me clue you in. James is a friend of Thomas the Tank Engine – a popular character on a children’s program. In fact, my son loves Thomas so much that I recently used it to con him into learning part of the theme song on the piano.

That’s right. He has the first 10 notes of the theme song down and, already, my wife and I are planning our early retirement. We are pretty sure this was the sign we were waiting for that he is destined to be a prodigy/genius. Who cares if he’s still running into walls; he’s a genius I tell you. GENIUS!

In all seriousness, my bait-and-switch method of getting him to play the piano was very intentional. I am well aware of the cognitive benefits that learning an instrument can provide for my children. I’m also a firm believer, based on my own experience, that having a healthy passion, like a musical instrument, can help keep kids on the straight and narrow.

The Evidence-Based Benefits of Learning an Instrument (And Learning It Early)

It increases brain matter

 In a 2003 study by a Harvard neurologist, adult professional musicians were shown to have a higher level of gray matter volume in the motor, auditory, and visual-spatial regions of their brain than non-musicians. In a later study, the same neurologist demonstrated that positive structural brain changes take place in young children – average age of 6.3 years – after only 15 months of musical training.

It helps stave off the effect of aging on the brain

A 2011 study showed that having learned an instrument can slow the aging process on your brain. In the study, researchers divided 70 older adults – ages 60 to 83 – into three groups: those who had studied an instrument for more than ten years, those who had played for one to nine years, and those who had never learned an instrument.

Each group was then given a battery of neuropsychological tests. The group that had played an instrument for the longest scored the highest in testing on nonverbal memory recall, visuomotor speed and sequencing, and cognitive flexibility.

A 2012 study by the same researcher confirmed the findings of the 2011 study and also suggested that learning an instrument before the age of nine and studying that instrument for at least ten years results in the greatest benefits. Those who met these criteria in the study outperformed non-musicians in verbal working memory, verbal memory, verbal fluency, visuospatial, and planning functions.

Learning an instrument, especially early in life, and sticking with it has positive, long-lasting effects on your brain.

It helps keep kids on the straight and narrow

Another reason to learn an instrument is that you don’t end up in a van down by the river. Seriously, though, when I was in high-school, I was in marching band. Now, before you start making fun of me for being a nerd, I was on the drumline and I’m pretty sure that made me pretty cool. Like, way cool.

When I was in drumline, we spent hours a day together, practicing, goofing around, and eating. All those hours working and having fun together meant forging some pretty tight bonds. I didn’t want the validation or acceptance of the drinking or drug-using crowd. I had my gang and I loved it.

My life outside of school and drumline consisted of playing guitar in our church’s youth group. Yet again, music introduced me to some of my closest friends. I traveled to Africa, Hungary, and even to different churches in the states playing music with these dear friends.

Learning a musical instrument connected me to other musicians and kept me out of the wrong crowds.

To force or not to force?

You know what I’ve never heard an adult say? “I’m so glad my parents let me quit piano lessons.” Do you know what I’ve heard nearly every adult that was once taking piano lessons say? “I wish my parents would have made me stay with piano lessons.”

My son is only four. I don’t have any personal experience with the “joys” of forcing him to take musical instrument lessons. However, based on the evidence, I can’t help but think I’m going to want to essentially mandate that he take lessons of some instrument. It can even be one of his choosing.

And so, Parent.co readers, I turn to you. What has your experience been? Can we tell our kids – much like we do with chores – that they must practice an instrument without being resent-worthy Tiger parents?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.