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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.


© 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.

Addressing the Challenge of Mental Wellbeing in Music

Christmas is fast approaching. It’s a time associated with happiness and music, lights, gifts and laughter. But Christmas can be a dark time for some, particularly those struggling with mental health issues.

Having been around musicians all my life, I have come across many who have suffered from mental health issues, from mild depression and anxiety to those suffering from bipolar disorder. I am glad that the Industry is now starting to acknowledge the challenge of mental health difficulties and looking to support those who need help. Identifying those who need help is key to ensuring people get the support they need. For some mental health issues start early, and schools and youth groups are not always able to support those who need help, talking about these challenges can ensure that people get the support they need.

Maria Thomas, The Music Workshop Company

The music industry has been determinedly addressing issues of wellbeing in performers in recent years. Players suffering physical issues such as RSI brought on by overuse, stress or postural issues have been able to find much needed support. There is considerable effort to educate musicians in a holistic way, acknowledging the importance of looking after the body. The stigma around illness and injury in a competitive profession has lessened.


Now the focus has turned to mental health, an issue that is particularly pertinent for many during the Christmas period. In May 2016, Help Musicians UK ran a survey of over 2200 performers. The survey discovered that 70% of musicians have experienced anxiety and panic attacks. It was also found that music-industry professionals can be up to three times more likely to suffer depression than those in other career fields.

These issues are prevalent throughout music, both in classical orchestras and touring rock bands. The highs of performance can make every-day life seem mundane, touring tests relationships, standards are high and perfectionism is rife. Aspects of the industry are glamorised by alcohol and drugs, and social drinking can easily mask destructive alcoholism. Performance anxiety and pressure to deliver at a high level can lead to excessive drinking, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsive behaviour and depression. The fact that self-image has little to do with talent becomes obvious when watching TV spectacles such as the X-Factor auditions. Some of the most talented musicians have huge levels of self-doubt. Studies have also shown that incidences of bipolar disorder are possibly linked with high childhood IQ and creativity.

The problem with mental health issues as opposed to physical illness is that they are often invisible and therefore unnerving to those who have no experience of them. A broken leg is more easily understood. There is a level of shame associated with mental illness – sufferers can feel they have an intrinsic weakness and fear that their careers will suffer if they reach for help.


Luckily, attitudes are changing. More than 20 years after the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain who was thought to have bipolar disorder, bipolar and depression are much more openly discussed in the media after celebrities such as Stephen Fry ‘came out’ as sufferers. As a result, musicians are beginning to speak up. Composer Nico Muhly, blogging for American music site Noted Endeavours, called for a destigmatisation of mental illness and depression among musicians.

And in May 2016, coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week, the Santiago Quartet completed a fundraising campaign to record an album in aid of Mind, the mental health charity, motivated by ‘cellist Jonathan Hennessey-Brown’s recovery from bipolar.

The pressures of life and juggling career, parenthood and personal issues led to a vicious return of bipolar-based mania about 3 years ago,” says Jonathan. “Music, helping others and the Santiago Quartet have been instrumental in aiding my recovery from my third, and hopefully final, hospitalisation. I also find it crucial to avoid drinking any alcohol whatsoever so my medication works.

The industry is rallying to offer support for musicians, delivering the message that mental wellbeing is as relevant as physical health, and that it is important to seek professional help. Professional bodies including the Musicians’ Union offer useful advice and information, and following its survey, Help Musicians hope to have a service dedicated to musicians’ mental health in place by 2017. Online resources make it possible for everyone working in the industry, whether as a performer or in management, to understand more about these issues. The statistics shown in the Help Musicians’ survey indicate that even those lucky enough to avoid mental health issues will find themselves working with or employing someone who has experienced these problems.

If you, a family member, friend or fellow musician could use some advice about mental health issues, the list of links below contains a wide range of information and support for illnesses from addiction and anxiety to eating disorders and more. Please share this list with your students and colleagues.

The Music Workshop Company would like to wish you a happy and healthy Christmas!

Help Musicians: https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/get-advice/health-wellbeing/mental-health/mental-health

Musicians’ Union: http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Home/Advice/Your-Career/Health-and-Safety/Wellbeing

British Association of Performing Arts Medicine: http://bapam.org.uk/news/tag/mental-health/

ArtsMinds: http://www.artsminds.co.uk

Mind, the Mental Health Charity: http://www.mind.org.uk

Alcoholics Anonymous: http://alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

Al Anon (for relatives and friends of alcoholics): http://www.al-anonuk.org.uk

Jonathan Hennessey-Brown’s blog on HuffPost: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jonathan-hennesseybrown/my-journey-through-bipolar_b_9872792.html


MWC Supports Protect Music Education

This month, we wanted to bring to your attention the Protect Music Education campaign, a drive launched in April by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) to rebuild Government support for music education.

The campaign focuses on 5 key points:

  • The Government must unequivocally support music education
  • The Government is telling local authorities to stop funding music services
  • Local authority funding is in addition to national funding
  • The flagship National Plan for Music Education is at risk
  • Music is central to society, education and economy

Protect-M_EThe benefits of music education, particularly amongst children who learn an instrument, have been explored widely in recent years. We have read many times in the media about the improvement in literacy and numeracy, as well as the development of skills including co-ordination, presentation and team working, which come with the study of music. Learning an instrument has been shown to have a positive impact on academic studies.

In 2013, researchers in neuroscience at the Northwestern University, Illinois, found that childhood music lessons also have long-term effects on neurological health. The study demonstrated that participants who had between four and fourteen years of musical training had faster responses to speech sounds than participants without any training, despite the fact that many of them had not played an instrument for about 40 years.

As well as being of benefit to individuals, the creative industries are worth £36.3 billion a year to the UK. The music industry is worth between £3.5 billion and £3.8 billion depending on which measure you use.

Despite this knowledge, funding cuts in music education have been a common trend for a long time. According to a BBC report from 2011, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, insisted he would ensure that all children had access to quality music education, but even with that assurance he was unable to guarantee funding beyond the end of the year.

In 2010/2011, the Government spending on music education was £127.5 million. This dropped to £111.6 million the following year.

Despite the Government’s commitment to support music education, many local authorities are being forced to cut funding, with their main budgets being slashed by at least 30%. Some councils are cutting music education budgets altogether, with the Department for Education recommending in March this year that hubs should no longer be funded by local authorities.

The recent consultation document on local education funding shows that central government expects local government to cease funding music in English schools from 2016 and there is little certainty as to the continuation of funding after the current financial year. The expectation is that music services will be funded through music education hubs and school budgets, and no longer from the Education Services Grant (ESG).

The consultation is part of a plan to make savings of up to £200 million to the ESG, stating, “Schools should take greater responsibility for their own improvement, leaving local authorities to focus on their statutory functions.” These statutory functions are broadly administrative and include planning for the education service as a whole, providing a director of Children’s Services, health and safety, pensions and other services.

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 18.04.18This recommendation, along with cuts in funding to the Music Education Hubs, puts the National Plan for Music Education at risk.

According to a report in the May 2014 edition of Music Teacher Magazine, the Musicians’ Union are currently backing a campaign to prevent the Council in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight from cutting 92 music teaching jobs, after Councillor Steve Priest remarked on BBC South that he would be, “looking for musicians in the area to teach our children as volunteers as there are many people who can play instruments”.

On May 17th, former winner of the Young Musician of the Year, Mark Simpson, writing in the Guardian, expressed his concern that funding cuts in classical music are depriving children from low income backgrounds of the opportunity to learn an instrument.

The problem is not specific to the UK. In Ottowa, Canada, where in 2012 fewer than half of schools had even a part time music teacher, astronaut and scientist Chris Hadfield criticised cuts in music education, saying, “All these cuts are not doing our children any good, they’re not doing the development of our children any good, and I don’t think they’re doing much for Canada.” Speaking at an event promoting music education in schools which took place on May 5th, Hadfield explained, “Learning to play the guitar taught me to improvise and be creative. Music taught me to be a better astronaut.”

Protect Music Education is attracting support from musicians including violinist Nicola Benedetti and soprano, Dame Felicity Lott, journalists and organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Trinity College, London. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness of the potential threat to music in education.

MWC’s Maria Thomas says, “Many of the musicians here at the Music Workshop Company, received their early musical training through the music services. For generations, local music services run by councils have created opportunities for young people to develop their musical skills and make friendships that last for life. The Music Workshop Company fully supports the Protect Music Education campaign.”


Add your support to Protect Music Education today, and help ensure that future generations have the chance to benefit from learning music, with all the pleasure and benefits it can bring.

African Drumming – Culture, Confidence and Communication

DrummingAfrican Drumming is one of our most popular workshops here at Music Workshop Company.  Workshops are based on traditional drumming circles creating a positive, inclusive space in which to explore the music and culture of Africa, boost self-confidence and develop key skills. Our workshops are suitable for everyone, from school children to big business. African drumming is a fantastic, fun, team building exercise and sessions can be structured specifically to develop communication and performance skills, or to focus on African culture, rhythms and music.

The cultural history…

The djembe drums, which we use in our African Drumming workshops, originate from West Africa, from countries such as Ghana and Guinea. They are goblet-shaped; carved from a single piece of hardwood and covered with a goat skin. Played with the hands, the djembe produces three distinct tones or notes and is valued for its versatile, expressive voice.  African Drums

Traditionally the djembe was used by storytellers and healers, as an instrument of reconciliation in disputes within the community and for dancing for social occasions such as births, marriages, rites of passage, funerals and even the planting and harvesting of crops, all of which ceremonies have their own songs, dances and rhythms.

According to the Bamana people of Mali, the djembe gets its name from the saying, “Anke dje, anke be,” which translates as, “Everyone gather together in peace.” Dje translates to gather, and be translates to peace.

Learning and playing the djembe is a direct link to the ancient cultural traditions of West Africa. It is also very beneficial in ways which may not be immediately obvious.

Drumming increases wellbeing…

Playing the djembe is known to increase heart rate and blood flow. Apart from the physical effort of hitting the drum and the sense of the vibrations pulsating through the body, there is a certain tempo at which the heart rate accelerates. This happens once the beat is faster than 120bpm (two beats per second). The increased heart rate means that blood flows around the body faster, giving you a great internal workout.  Slower rhythms create a calming effect and can help relieve stress.

Drumming is great for teamwork…

When people drum together, forming one unified sound, they form an energy greater than the sum of the individual players. Everybody’s contribution is important as the group works together towards a common goal. This can be useful in balancing a team or a class dynamic. Those less used to taking charge gain a sense of empowerment, and the more confident members or those in managerial roles learn to take a step back and see the value of everyone in the group.

Drumming teaches you to listen…

All of our workshops are taught by listening, in the same way music and storytelling have been passed on for centuries. There is no music reading. Learning any music in this way teaches you to listen in a much deeper way than we normally do, particularly within a group. If you observe yourself in conversation you may find you’re simply waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can say what you want to say, rather than really listening to them and responding to what they think. Drumming helps develop the ability to listen to more than one thing at once, and to listen to other people rather than focusing on your own sound.

Drumming builds confidence…

Trying something new where you are able to create music right from the start is deeply satisfying and great for self-esteem. Drumming uses the same parts of the brain which we use to compose speech. It is in itself an extrovert, joyous activity and can therefore be a liberating experience for anyone who is usually shy in a group situation. It can even help with skills such as public speaking. As the workshop progresses and you find yourself enjoying a new skill, confidence grows.

If you would like to enquire about booking one of our African Drumming Workshops please get in touch. We look forward to drumming with you soon.

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