Why Teach Music?

As we move to the post-Covid phase of education it is concerning to see that the arts, and music in particular, have been relegated to what appears to be the ‘non-essential’ component of the curriculum.

But what if the decision makers have it all wrong? What if the focus on ‘the basics’, the ‘Three Rs’, or 'Literacy and Numeracy' in contemporary education-speak, is actually putting the cart before the horse?

Pat Devery looks at the research of leading Australian music educator, Dr Anita Collins, who is a world leader in researching the impact that learning music has on brain development, especially in school-aged children.

Why teach music?

In short, neuroscientists and psychologists have found that music education:

  • Assists memory function
  • Helps us learn languages
  • Helps us moderate our emotional state
  • Helps us solve complex problems
  • Leads to healthier brains in later life

Learning music is a full brain workout

Does any footballer start the season by pulling the boots out of the cupboard and launching into a full-contact game?

Most sensible and successful athletes would embark upon a series of strength and conditioning activities which would set them up for the specific requirements of their code of choice.

Similarly, learning music is one of the most complex cognitive activities the brain can undertake, and has the capacity to set children up for other learning activities. As Dr Collins says, ‘After doing something so complex, our brains look at other tasks like reading, problem solving and conceptualisation and say: “Well, this is easy in comparison to music learning!”

What does the evidence tell us?

The parts of the brain that are responsible for learning music and language are overlapping. This means:

  • We hear music as language when we are babies
  • We use that understanding to the learn how to decode language and speak it.

This is why musically trained children tend to acquire language quicker, learn how to read earlier and develop comprehension skills earlier. This is the very foundation of all learning at school: the ability to use language.

Music education:

  • Activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain – where our executive functions live
  • Requires and develops subtle, non-verbal skills
  • Provides children with the cognitive foundations for effective learning.

Music Education, or Literacy and Numeracy?

A focus on literacy and numeracy which relegates the arts to ‘non-essential’ or it’s a nice add-on it but it’s not core curriculum reminds me of the story of the woodsman who kept getting slower and slower at felling trees as his axe became more blunt. When asked why he did not stop to sharpen his axe he replied, ‘Because I don’t have time!’

Let's hope that the work of Dr Anita Collins and others in the field brings some about some evidence based decisions which sees music given its rightful place as a core subject in the curriculum.

CLICK HERE to read more about Anita Collins' research into how studying music improves brain function.

Dr Collins has new book, The Music Advantage, due out in Sept.


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