The importance of music in schools

Despite an abundance of research concluding that a well-rounded education, which incorporates physical education, drama, dance, art and music, supports the development of skills such as creativity, resilience, self-control, communication skills, and leadership skills, many schools have been cutting back on these subjects in recent years.

The primary reason for a reduction in arts education is the current fixation for schools to improve their Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programmes. However, relegating arts programs in favour of STEM is ill-conceived, and is likely to have a negative impact on this generation of learners.

Music education in schools is often the first ‘soft subject’ to be dismissed by education authorities, in the push to prepare students for the workplace of the 21st Century. However, by dismissing music as a ‘soft subject’, schools are limiting students’ potential and cheating today’s learners of opportunities to develop essential skills.

A correlation between music and learning has long been recognised, but the benefits of music education are much greater than most people realise. The popular Mozart Effect has been proven by various scientific studies and over the past 20 years there have several more large-scale studies which have concluded there is a clear relationship between learning to play an instrument, brain development and academic success. Research has also shown that learning to play a musical instrument benefits cognitive function, intelligence, motor skills, emotions, creativity and attitudes towards learning.

Motor Skills
A study led by professor Ellen Winner of Boston College psychology and professor Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard University, revealed that children who participated in 15 months of weekly musical instruction showed significant improvements in the development of their fine motor skills.

At the end of study, the researchers conducted brain scans of the participating students and discovered that neural pathways associated with motor task competencies had shown remarkable development.

Regular piano playing remains one of the most effect methods by which young children can improve their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

A study in Canada, which examined the impact of music lesson on the IQ of 144 six-year-old students, discovered a clear correlation between learning music and intelligent quotient. The report concluded that those students who had spent one year learning to play a musical instrument had significantly higher IQs than those who children who hadn’t had those music lessons.

Inspired by this study of six-year-olds in Canada, Professor E. Glenn Schellenberg hypothesized that many years of music study would further enhance a child’s IQ.  Professor Schellenberg and his team surveyed college students about their music education backgrounds. His research concluded that those students who had six years, or more, of music training had significantly higher IQs than those students who didn’t have a background in studying music.

Improves Emotional Outlook
In 2015 the National Institutes of Health conducted a meta-analysis study of 232 brain scans from children and adolescents, and discovered that learning music at a young age had a positive impact on students’ emotional development.

Psychiatry professor James Hudziak from the University of Vermont explained the brain scans revealed that the more a child had trained on a specific musical instrument, the better the child’s emotional outlook and anxiety control was. This finding was linked to “cortical thickening” on certain areas of the young musician’s brains.

Other reports have come to similar conclusion and there is growing evidence that exposure to the arts helps students develop more self-control, a better ability to cooperate, and they become less likely to result to violence or aggression.

Improves GPA

Just this year a primary school in Bradford, England, attributed its newfound SAT success to giving all children up to six hours of music a week. At the school 74% of students achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared with the national average of 53%.

Researchers also found that Mathematics abilities at the school had increased significantly since launching the extended music programme, with the school improving on its 2011 results of  2.4 points below the national average, to now being 6.5 points above the national average. The school’s improvements were considered particularly impressive given that 99% of the student population spoke English as an additional language, and over 50% of the students had initially arrived at the school unable to speak English.

Schools in the US have experienced similar successes, with a study titled ‘The Untapped Power of Music’ concluding that studying music was linked to greater academic achievement and high school students with a background in music performed better on college entrance examinations and standardized assessments such as the SATs. The report also revealed that students who played music in a band or orchestra generally had higher GPAs than students who did not.

Social skills
A review of multiple research studies by the Department of Psychology at  McGill University’s discovered that learning to play music could also enhance children’s social skills. The report indicated that rhythmically synchronous activities, such as dancing, marching, and playing music, fostered feelings of social connection. The report concluded that chemicals which help improve social bonding were released by participants during musical performances. These results from McGill University have been corroborated in other studies on music, including one report titled ‘Music Increases Altruism Through Regulating the Secretion of Steroid Hormones and Peptides.’

Greater Likelihood of Graduation
A report published in 2006 ‘Understanding the Linkages Between Music Education and Educational Outcomes’ found that high schools with music programs had higher graduation rates that those institutions which did  not.

The report also discovered that college principals who personally felt that music education was important to the culture of the institution, were leading colleges with higher graduation rates than colleges where the principal did not value music education as highly.

Mental health

Finally a 2014 report  published in the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that playing a musical instrument could stave off  senile dementia of the Alzheimer’s type….a benefit which may be of more interest to teachers than young students!

The study, which analyzed only twins, concluding that those participants who had played a musical instrument during adulthood were 36% less likely to develop dementia, and that playing an instrument could protect individuals from degenerative brain diseases.

A Wealth of Benefits

Given the wide range of benefits that music education provides to students of all ages, it is disastrous to think that music lessons should be pushed off the school timetable in favour of more Mathematics and Science classes. Not only will a well-balanced education give today’s students a more positive outlook on learning and better developed life attributes such as, creativity, resilience, the ability to communicate and collaborate, but arts education will also support improvements in traditional subjects and standardised assessments.


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