Music & Education

The benefits of a musical education

The importance of music in schools is an issue that is coming to the fore again. A UK Department of Education press notice recently stated that;

“Giving all young people the best possible music education will help the Government achieve its twin aims of driving up standards and reducing the attainment gap”

But are they serious? Music educators and psychologists are growing increasingly concerned for the role of music in schools, in light of the fact that the same government who spoke the words above is in the process of rolling out the ‘English Baccalaureate’. The English Baccalaureate is an award that will be given to any pupil who secures good GCSE or iGCSE passes in all of the following subjects:

• English
• Maths
• The sciences
• A modern or ancient foreign language
• A humanity: history or geography

As you can see – no room for music there. Critics fear that the Baccalaureate, which will eventually take its place in official school league tables, will force schools to focus even more on traditional academic subjects in their curriculum at the expense of practical subjects like the technologies and creative subjects like art and music.

Leading experts in the field of music education are not going to take such a worrying change lightly. Musical engagement is a vital part of education – that is their line of argument (and mine!). The key is to expose the right people to all the evidence suggesting that involving children with music provides a multitude of benefits for their cognitive, neurological and social development, as well as for the classroom environment in general.

This week I was fortunate enough to take part in a seminar convened by The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science Research in Learning and Education called “The Musical Brain: Implications for Education”. The idea was to hear and discuss the scientific evidence for the relationship between musical training and academic ability, and the seminar featured presentations from Professor Philip Sheppard (Royal Academy of Music), my boss Dr Lauren Stewart (Goldsmith, University of London), and Professor Susan Hallam (Institute of Education, London).

It was a fascinating series of talks, and I am only sorry that there were so few people in the room to hear them. I don’t have the space to go into depth about each speaker’s wonderful presentation, but here are some of the highlights.

Philip Sheppard
The “Mozart effect”, the idea that passively listening to music can confer cognitive benefits, is akin to watching the Olympics and expecting it to make you fit. The key to using music as part of learning is participation and not just passive reception.
• Ensnaring a child’s imagination with music can build on their ability to focus and be creative, and it can boost their memory and communication skills, and therefore impact positively on their ‘intelligence’ – an overarching ability which he described simply as ‘the ability to learn’.
• We are all born with keen pitch acuity and this is lost if we don’t use it. He cited as evidence the example of higher rates of perfect pitch in Asian students who speak tonal languages.
Teaching music should focus more on exploration, creativity and play. Language learning is full of legitimate creative practise, while music is taught more by accurate reproduction. Music teachers should focus less on the ‘right way’ of doing something and embrace more the idea of letting a child find their own love within music, thereby allowing them to explore, develop a sense of identity and self, create their own transmission techniques for ideas, and to grow in confidence.

Lauren Stewart
• Music as a model of neural plasticity. Neurons and their connections change and grow through learning and experience. Skill learning in particular has large effects on the brain, citing the example of the London Taxi driver study (Maguire, 2000)
Music is a ‘super skill’ that confers multiple benefits: Motor, coordination between effectors, integration of sensory modalities and online performance monitoring.
• Musicians brains are different: Changes to motor and sensory areas, auditory and visuo-spatial processing, and hemispheric integration
• Developing expertise as listeners: Listening is a complex mental process of construction whereby we seek order and patterns in the vibration of the sound molecules around us. In music we have an opportunity to practise learning rule structures, to test expectations, and to tune our environmental responses in a safe and rewarding context.
• Facets of ‘musicality’: We don’t need ‘formal’ musical training to develop skills in music. The creative and social aspects of music engagement are too often overlooked. They are currently being explored in the ‘How musical are you?’ project with the BBC

Susan Hallam
There are a multitude of wider benefits associated with musical engagement in children. These include improvements in early encoding of sound, structural analysis of sound, verbal memory, motor coordination (important for writing skills) and phonological awareness.
• Positive impact of rhythm training on conditions like dyslexia and dyspraxia.
• Giving a child a sense of achievement, improving self esteem, self discipline, expression, social skills (negotiation and compromise; especially in group music situations) and commitment to projects. All these skills are good for learning in general.
• Discussed the ‘In Harmony’ project in Liverpool. Huge personal and social benefits of a class where children make music together. Much better performance on English and Maths STAT exams even though 4 hours of English and Maths was cut from the timetable to make room for the music!
• Music in everyday life beyond the school years: Research in older groups suggests involvement in music clubs can help physical wellbeing (better motor coordination, breathing, less falls and visits to the doctor) and mental wellbeing (more autonomy, pleasure out of life, sense of belonging, less stress and depression, and help with making friendships and going through grieving process)
The paradox of music education is that music is still often seen as a leisure activity that has limited benefits when it comes to preparing someone for the real world: The traditional, if somewhat unreasonable argument, is to compare an education in music to an education in subjects like Maths or English. The speakers at this meeting, and the following round table discussion featuring leading academics from music psychology, presented so many powerful arguments as to why music is such a vital part of learning, at all stages of life.

Turning child’s play into child’s progress: what could be simpler, more cost effective or more rewarding than that?


  • Katie

    Great article Vicky! I’m going into sixth form in September, and I really had to fight to get A level music to run. Everything else ran, no questions asked. But not music, I had to literally create a petition of people who wanted to do it. Thankfully they finally listened and it is now running:) Still, I don’t think it’s fair that other subjects are just run, but music isn’t. It’s not as though it’s a soft option. The school runs Health and Social Care, but not music? Why? Thanks, Katie