We all know, instinctively, that music is good for us, and for our children. And despite the continuing cuts in funding, those responsible for our education systems across the world still tend to prioritise music above other arts. References are often made to music’s ‘instrumental’ benefits – improving academic achievement, personal development, and life skills. Anita Holford and Dyfan Wyn Owen, both parents of a young musician, look at whether learning music really can make a difference to childrens’ futures. This article was first published on Musicstage.co, the online platform for the whole music community.
The picture, it seems, is a positive if slightly hazy one. In January (2015), Professor Susan Hallam from the Institute of Education at the University of London, published a review of the research evidence, ‘The power of music: its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people’ (an updated version of her original 2010 review). She says there is compelling evidence for the benefits of music education on a wide range of skills including: “listening skills which support the development of language skills, awareness of phonics and enhanced literacy; spatial reasoning which supports the development of some mathematical skills; and where musical activities involve working in groups, a wide range of personal and social skills which also serve to enhance overall academic attainment even when measures of intelligence are taken into account.”
Improving exam results
One of the areas of research that is most hotly debated, is whether music lessons actually improves grades.
The results of a five-year study by researchers in Quebec, Canada, showed that high-performing students between 11-16-years-old did even better when they opted to take part in ongoing music classes as part of their curriculum, compared with those who dropped them after two years of compulsory training. Could it be that these students were naturally more motivated or advantaged than others though?
Evaluation findings from US charity Education Through Music show that students from low-income families in the Bronx, New York City improve their grades when they take part in their specialist music programme as part of their school curriculum. The most recent report shows that they scored on average 8.1 percentage points higher on state maths exams and 6.6 percentage points higher on English compared to other students. The study followed nearly 1,000 students over six years (from the age of 8 to 14 years). Education Through Music works with 15,000 pupils in 28 high-needs schools, helping teachers integrate music throughout the curriculum and providing music teachers who see every student at least once a week.
Similar improvements in the academic achievements of children from low-income families have been achieved through the controversial Venezualan El Sistema music education programme, now copied in dozens of other countries.
So it seems it’s not just a particular sub-group of students who benefit from music: potentially, all young people can. And there are many other studies with similar results: but if this is the case, what’s actually happening, and what areas of learning does it impact on?
Music and reading: language skills and learning to learn
A lot has been made of the link between music and reading. Recent research from the United States suggests that this is to do with the development of listening skills, which can make young people more effective learners. Dr Dr Nina Kraus, Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University, Ilinois, has found that music learning shapes the development of the brain and nervous system and in doing so, improves students’ language learning and acquisition, and their ability to make meaning of important messages – despite distractions such as a noisy environment.
She says: “Language depends on listening to speech sounds and translating the streams of sounds into words and sentences. This is what’s called the sound-to-meaning connection. Reading requires matching those same speech sounds to letter symbols that represent the words and sentences. Active music training that involves rehearsing with an instrument provides listening practice that enhances processing speech sounds and thus supports reading. The experience of making music seems to create a more efficient brain, a brain more sensitive to sound, which means a brain more able to learn.”
VIDEO: Instrumental tuition in inner city LA improves learning skills – Harmony project news item:
In the UK, the New London Orchestra’s Literacy through Music project showed that this translates to the classroom. Empowering primary school teachers with the skills to use music in the classroom helped to improve literacy, particularly reading – by an average of 8.4 months compared to those in control groups who improved by 1.8 months.
The results of a more recent research project by Northwestern University, and published in July 2015, suggests that even when students start learning music as late as high school, there can be benefits, improving the teenage brain’s responses to sound and sharpening hearing and language skills, as well as speeding up the time in which students reach adult cortical development.
Dr Susan Hallam says that demonstrating causality in relation to the findings can be tricky, but that “While the precise nature of the relationships between musical training and reading skills are currently unclear, there is sufficient accruing evidence to suggest that musical training which supports the development of pitch and rhythmic skills supports the development of fluent reading leading to enhanced comprehension.”
Much has been written over many years about the link between music and maths – and in some countries, children have even been grouped in music classes according to mathematical ability. Certainly simple mathematics is at the core of music – counting a beat and the lengths of different notes; understanding the way notes are split into octaves, tones and semi-tones, learning musical patterns – and then there’s jazz, which requires an appreciation of abstract stuctures.
VIDEO: Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics, Oxford University talks about the link between music and maths and a project with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:
The Education Through Music programme mentioned earlier showed improvements in maths scores as a result of their classes, and there is similar research that tests both literacy and maths scores as a way of providing music’s instrumental value. Yet it seems this is even harder to prove than the link with literacy. There are suprisingly few robust studies, although it’s clear that there is a link, and it seems obvious that music can therefore help with things like understanding fractions.
Memory, creativity, decision making
If researchers are now delving deeper into these instrumental benefits to find out about music’s impact on the body’s nervous system, then it’s no surprise that their attentions have turned to music and memory. Music requires a high level of learning and memorising, so it seems logical that exercising this ability will improve it – and that could impact on other areas of learning.
AUDIO: Unlocking the Mysteries of Music in Your Brain – Daniel J Levitin, neuroscientist and author delivers the Proms Lecture at the Royal College of Music, July 2015 and talks about the effects of music on our brains including memory.
One of the most recent pieces of research, a German study of 7-8 year-old children, has found that yes, young children who took instrumental music lessons did better than their peers on verbal and visual memory tests and this supports verbal memory research conducted in Canada and similar music education research in Germany in 2011 and in Hong Kong in 1998 and 2003. And research from Dr Nina Kraus – the first study of its kind to provide biological evidence that lifelong musical experience has an impact on the ageing process – showed that musicians suffer less from ageing-related memory and hearing losses than non-musicians.
Unlocking potential – social, personal and emotional impacts
It’s easy to see how playing a musical instrument can boost children’s self-esteem and confidence. It gives them a chance to shine in an area where they may have a particular interest, passion or aptitude and others may not; and can give them confidence in performing in front of people, which translates into other areas.
It also helps them develop a disciplined attitude towards learning, and those who may struggle in more academic subjects may find that they are able to come into their own – in music and in wider learning – once they start playing a musical instrument.
Making music in a group has added benefits of giving students the skills and attributes they need to succeed in school, in society, and in life – including creativity, discipline, teamwork, responsibility and problem solving.
Perhaps the most striking examples of the power of music are with young people who are experiencing the biggest barriers in learning and in life. The Education Through Music programme is just one example, but countless evaluation studies and case studies, particularly in the UK through the work of children’s charity Youth Music, have pointed to the transformation that music can bring about in confidence, self-esteem and skills for learning. Darren is an example of the power of music to help young people transform their lives, reaching beyond their own perceptions of what they can achieve, and helping them to develop social and personal skills.
Academic research shows that there’s a biological link to this too. A six-year Canadian study of more than 200 young people aged 6-18 has shown that playing a musical instrument could alter the behaviour-regulating and motor areas of the brain. A three-year study also in Canada showed that classroom/curriculum music lessons boosted children’s self-esteem. And a UK study found that regularly playing music in groups can improve children’s ability to empathise with others.
There’s a wealth of other evidence that also suggests links between musical training and executive functioning (the cognitive processes that enable us to quickly process and retain information, regulate behaviours, make choices, solve problems, and plan and adjust); motor skills as well as auditory ones; verbal intelligence and even IQ. Then there’s a host of other evidence about the impact making music can have on health and wellbeing. Music educator and researcher Anita Collins sums this up in her powerful TEDx talk, which imagines the effects on a generation of children, and on our society, if they experienced the full cognitive benefits of music education:
VIDEO: What if every child had access to music education from birth? Anita Collins at TEDxCanberra:
We’re certainly not short of research, which arts and music enthusiasts are quick to pick up on, but researchers always urge caution, particularly about making ‘causal links’ between music and life chances.
Researching the effects of music is clearly not straightforward and there may never be a piece of research that tells us that if your child learns this type of music, for this period of time, they’ll be better at maths or reading, learning or remembering. But it’s clear that music has a positive effect on a young person’s brain, and beyond this, it helps them to gain confidence and self-esteem, and learn the personal and social skills needed to succeed in learning and in life.
Perhaps, however, the most important evidence is our own experience of music, what we know, innately, about its power. As music educator Richard Gill said in his TEDx Sydney talk, “music opens up the mind of a child in an extraordinary way”.
Music is a massive industry precisely because everyone wants and needs music and it has a deep and powerful value that’s beyond what any research can prove. Who can deny the affect that music has on us, its ability to express and understand complex feelings, and our drive as humans to make music, and to share it at the most important points in our lives? So yes, music is good for our children, and by learning how to make music, they’re given the key to some of the most profound of all human experiences.
But what needs to be in place for music learning to have the most benefit?
In her ‘The Power of Music’ report, Professor Susan Hallam concludes that:
- active engagement with making music should start early for the greatest benefits to be realised;
- engagement needs to be sustained over a long period of time to maximise the benefits;
- the activities need to include group work;
- opportunities need to be available for performance;
- the quality of teaching needs to be high;
- the curriculum needs to be broadly based including activities related to pitch and rhythm, singing, instrumental work, composition and improvisation, and the reading of notation;
- to have a positive impact on disaffected and at-risk young people, the musical activities need to be in a genre with which they can relate.