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How Music Benefits Children

Our guest blog this month is from Dawn Rose, an early career researcher in the psychology of music and dance. Dawn’s background as a professional musician (drummer), music teacher and performing artist has informed her research interests. Following a successful completion of the Music, Mind and Brain MSc. at Goldsmiths, University of London, Dawn continued on to complete PhD. Her doctoral work investigated effects of music education on cognitive, behavioural and socio-emotional domains in children alongside expertise in adults.

This article was first published on theconversation.com.

Popular ideas, such as the “Mozart effect” – the idea that listening to classical music improves intelligence – has encouraged the belief that “music makes you smarter”.

This interest in the relationship between musical aptitude on ability and intelligence has been around for some time. But despite these beliefs being pretty widespread, there is still no conclusive evidence to actually prove that listening to certain types of music really can improve your intelligence.

In 1974, music researchers Desmond Sergeant and Gillian Thatcher said that:

All highly intelligent people are not necessarily musical, but all highly musical people are apparently highly intelligent.

And “apparently” is the key word here, because the evidence regarding musical listening in itself is mixed. Research has shown that listening to music shows an improvement in certain kinds of mental tasks. But these are specifically short-term improvements involving “spatial-temporal reasoning” skills – puzzle solving type tasks.

Listening vs playing

But while listening to music is all well and good, what about actually playing it? Research that focuses on how or if playing a musical instrument can impact on intelligence, often looks at how learning in one area can lead to improvements in other areas – an idea known as “transfer effects”.

This is the idea that learning to play the violin, or the drums, could help children to do better in their spellings or a science project. And this is in part the reason why some parents naturally encourage their children to learn an instrument – because of a belief that it will in some way make them more intelligent.

While some studies have shown how musical training can shape brain development. And that improvements in small motor skills and general intelligence have been linked to musical training. A recent review suggests that actual evidence supporting this idea of “transfer effects” is limited at present.

But despite these finds, there is still a wealth of evidence suggesting musical learning is beneficial. And with this in mind, drawing from my experience as a professional musician (drummer), music teacher and performing artist, I decided to investigate the effects of individual musical instrument learning on aspects of cognitive and behavioural development.

I also looked at the impact on “socio-emotional” development, which includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions, as well as the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others.

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© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

All the children who took part in the study had typical school group music lessons, but half of them had also chosen to learn an instrument individually for the first time that year.

The results showed that children who had started individual music lessons developed a better awareness of their “aim” and “force” in relation to their own motor skills as well as improving their “fluid intelligence” – which is the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns.

This suggests that musical instrument learning encourages the development of a physical sense of self in relation to the how we use objects in the world around us, as well as developing a specific kind of intelligence that is used in problem solving.

Music and social development

lessons_in_brass_dvids208411As part of my research, I also wanted to understand whether parents and teachers noticed any changes over the year in terms of the children’s socio-emotional well-being. The results showed that the children who had chosen to learn an instrument were considered by both their parents and teachers to be less anxious than those who had received only group lessons.

These children were also thought to internalise their problems less compared to the children who had only received the group sessions.

This is also reflected in my research looking at adult musicians, who explained that the “social structures” surrounding musical learning are the bits that they most appreciate, and have had the biggest impact on their lives.

This includes the opportunities to travel, the exchanges of culture among friends around the world, and their ongoing ability to be foster creativity in their lives through music.

Musical learning

It is clear then that music can have a big role to play when it comes to children’s learning. Not necessarily just in terms of intelligence, but also in term of their physical development and social well-being.

Research also shows how musical learning can help children to apply themselves, as well supporting the processes involved in teamwork and appreciation of working towards shared goals.

Valuing music education includes nurturing the development of these abilities, and these skills and mindsets. Which is why developing a culture of creativity and musical learning in our schools should be a key part of children’s lives.

A Focus on Listening

In a recent interview by The Scotsman, world-renowned violinist, Nicola Benedetti, passionately criticised the suggestion that children should not be exposed to classical music.

580px-Nicky_BenedettiBenedetti is a great advocate of music education. In 2010, she became Sistema Scotland’s official musical ‘Big Sister’ for the Big Noise project, as well as creating The Benedetti Sessions, giving hundreds of aspiring young string players the opportunity to rehearse, undertake and observe masterclasses, culminating in a performance with the violinist.

She is an also an ambassador for the BBC 10 Pieces project, an initiative for schools led by BBC Learning and the BBC Performing Groups, focusing on classical music and creativity. The project centres on 20 pieces; 10 for primary and 10 for secondary school ages; covering the spectrum of western classical music from the Baroque period to contemporary works, with a heavy weighting towards 20th Century music.

Benedetti argued that since, if children were given the option either to play a video game or study mathematics, the majority would choose the video game, deciding against teaching them to listen to classical symphonies because they don’t seem interested or it is considered difficult is a nonsense. MWC’s Maria Thomas explains why this is a subject close to her own heart.

Should we be encouraging young people to listen to whole symphonies or even whole operas? Interestingly, neither the primary nor the secondary 10 Pieces include a full symphony, concerto or other complete large-scale work. Individual movements are included, but not full works. Perhaps the chosen pieces are meant as an introduction to classical music, allowing listeners to explore the rest of the works themselves, or maybe, as the proposed lesson plans suggest, the individual movements are designed as a starting point for inspiration for creativity, I don’t know.

Learning to concentrate on listening to a whole symphony or opera is not an easy task, particularly when the work is new to you. I often enjoy listening to works I have studied more than those that I am discovering for the first time. I am more familiar with the themes, the structure, the instrumentation and how the material is developed.

HHCMF14s-37I was lucky enough to have been brought up as a regular concert and opera-goer, being encouraged to learn about the pieces before attending performances and having the chance to listen to recordings before hearing the live performance. Even so, when I hear a new piece, I can imagine how daunting or incomprehensible the idea of listening to a symphony must be, particularly for someone who has not had that opportunity. With no one to make recommendations of what to listen to or explain things about the music such as what to listen out for and the context that the composer was working in, where do you start?

So maybe the single movement decision by the BBC makes sense. Research suggests that with increasing access to new technology, young people are not able to concentrate for long periods, and the popularity of the single movement performance has been popularised by the huge success of Classic FM. However, when I worked at the Royal Opera House one of my favourite memories is of hearing the rapturous applause and cheering following a schools performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

I believe it comes down to what we feel is important. Getting the young to listen to any classical music will open their ears to music, art and experiences that are new to them, and will develop other skills such as listening, analytical thinking and concentration.

Research has shown that listening to music can help the brain, but that research also highlighted that familiarity with the music was important.

Another question worth considering is where the responsibility should lie in getting young people to listen to classical music. Should it be done in the home, at school or both?

For parents who have not experience of classical music, the idea of introducing their children to a symphony orchestra concert or recital is completely alien. Trying to research music can be challenging; programme notes, both online and in concert programmes can vary from excellent to incomprehensible, or be aimed at the very knowledgeable.

In schools it is increasingly difficult to introduce classical music into the classroom. Many primary schools do not have music specialists and both primary and secondary schools have music specialists who do not have a Classical music background. It was widely researched as long ago as 1997 that many primary school teachers feel negatively towards introducing classical music in their teaching as they lack confidence in their own knowledge of the subject.

800px-Boxwood_PS_Music_room

I don’t have the answers. I’m just glad that the BBC 10 Pieces is making access to Classical Music easier for young people, and that other fantastic outreach projects by organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra, Warwick University and the Sage are reaching out to their local communities and offering them the chance to explore Classical Music both with families and schools.

It was wonderful to share this enthusiasm for introducing young people to Classical Music and the wider arts at the brilliant Ahead For Culture conference, run by the ROHBridge Project, on 12th June at the Royal Opera House. The morning was hosted by Kirsty Wark who shared her early experiences of the Arts, and featured many inspiring speakers. Sir Anthony Seldon stressed the importance of introducing young people to the Arts in ways that help them to understand and engage with their experiences, Nii Sackey highlighted the fact that young people have their own answers about how they want to engage with the Arts, and Susan Coles gave a motivational call to action encouraging us all to push for the Arts to continue to be a key part of every young person’s education.

The afternoon sessions of workshops got everyone talking and sharing their experiences, before a fabulous performance by Next Generation Youth Theatre. The day was rounded off with an emotional reminder from Camila Batmanghelidhj CBE, founder of Kids Company, (who MWC are proud to work with) of some of the challenges today’s young people bring to their Arts experiences, and how experiences need to adapt to the needs of each young person.

It was a truly inspiring day and will lead to some exciting new projects and partnerships for MWC. Watch this space for more news!

The Music Workshop Company is in the process of developing resource packs for schools, designed to introduce and expand on many aspects of music. We would value your input. If there is a specific topic or aspect of music that you would like us to cover, or if we can make our resources more helpful in any way, please contact us via the website with your ideas and requests, or email info@music-workshop.co.uk.

We also run tailor-made inset workshops, integrating music into teacher training. Meeting with professional musicians who can explain music in an approachable way will give you exciting ideas to develop, and can be a great boost in confidence in the classroom. There is no great mystery to music. Just as you can teach a child to look at a beautiful painting and appreciate it without yourself being able to either paint it or explain how it was painted, it is possible to learn how to introduce children to music and the skills needed to listen to it.

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