What is the point of music education, anyway?
Posted on 31st January 2023 at 10:40
Image credit: Siniz Kim, Unsplash
In the national debate about what the school curriculum should look like, music education can too often lose out when held up against ‘core’ subjects like Maths and English. You could even be forgiven for thinking that music education is a ‘nice to have’ – a ‘soft’ subject that only serves a real purpose for young people who hope to pursue a career in music.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. This month, we explore why music education is important for everyone, and the benefits it can deliver beyond learning about music itself.
Music education supports brain development
The experience of learning to play music can have a profound impact on the brain. Simply listening to music engages multiple parts of the brain that work together in order to process the sound.
Learning to play music will naturally engage these parts of the brain, and much research suggests that for young people whose brains are still developing, music education can make a huge difference.
For example, in one study at McGill University in Montreal, researchers followed a group of children aged 5 and 6 who were given 15 months of musical training.
Illustration showing how music affects the brain (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Not only were their listening skills improved compared to those who hadn’t received the training, but brain scans showed structural changes in the temporal, frontal and parieto-occipital lobes – parts of the brain that are important for memory, decision-making and visual processing.
It encourages young people to express themselves creatively
For many children, their experience of school classrooms may be one of learning to deal with constraints. Of course, there are excellent teachers across the country who are striving to present their subjects in new and interesting ways. But music is a subject that naturally offers much more scope for self-expression and creativity – after all, that’s what music is at its core. With fewer ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, young people who struggle in other subjects can still excel in music – and this in itself can be a huge confidence boost.
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Through listening to compositions, students can gain an understanding of how artists convey different moods through instrumentation, and through their choice of key, tempo or even volume. And with the creative freedom to express their own thoughts and feelings through music, young people can also begin to find their own voice.
Music education builds collaboration skills
Playing music as part of a group necessarily involves listening to each other. When young people play music alongside each other, they are also learning how to take cues from each other, how to synchronise their playing, how to achieve the right volume together, and more. All this teaches collaborative working – a skill that is absolutely essential throughout life. Playing in a school orchestra, band or choir can be as valuable as taking part in team sports in terms of its ability to help children learn how to work together.
Image credit: BC Gov photos, Openverse
Some studies have suggested that by encouraging children to cooperate with each other, music education can also help to build empathy in young people. As we’ve already seen, music is a powerful way of expressing our emotional state – so it stands to reason that music education could help our emotional intelligence too.
Music boosts wellbeing
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Anyone who has ever put on a favourite song to help them get through a difficult time understands the power of music to boost our mood and relieve stress.
Researcher Dr Dawn Rose blogged for us back in 2017 on her research showing the impact of learning an instrument on children’s socio-emotional development and wellbeing. And in a recent analysis of 26 separate studies, researchers concluded that singing, playing music and listening to music can indeed improve wellbeing and quality of life, as many of us instinctively know. In fact, they said the changes they saw across these studies matched the effects of established non-pharmaceutical treatments – for example, exercise – for helping improve people’s mental wellbeing.
Why is that important in an educational context? Put simply, mental health and wellbeing are vital for people to function well – and if we want our young people to do well in life, this needs to apply to them too. Music education can help wellbeing in so many ways – through the social bonds that people build through playing music together, and through being given an important tool for coping with life’s tougher moments.
Music can be used as a lens to explore other subjects
As we’ve already noted, people have always used music to communicate big ideas to each other. Often the ideas contained in a piece of music reflect what was going on in the world when it was composed. Music education can help students understand history, art and literature, giving extra context about major world events, classic works of art, or their favourite books.
But music can also be a useful way in to so-called ‘hard’ subjects like Maths and Science. From grasping different time signatures to learning how instruments produce their sounds, music education can be integral to our understanding of the world around us.
Music education exposes young people to new ideas and cultures
The National Plan for Music Education in England is clear that music ‘must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition’. It’s well-known that children from less economically advantaged backgrounds are less likely to be exposed to certain types of music, such as classical music. But in fact, very few families will be able to introduce children to the range of ideas and cultures that schools can give them access to as part of a solid music education.
For example, whenever the Music Workshop Company delivers an African drumming workshop in a school, we will often find that for many children, it may be the first time they have come across a djembe.
Studying music at school does not have to lead to a career in music to be beneficial in its own right. Through learning about their own musical heritage, music from other cultures and how different genres of music have evolved and cross-pollinated, children can come away with a deeper understanding of those cultures. And by helping them to build ‘cultural capital’, music education gives children an important grounding that can help them to be successful in later life.
Learning music can have a lifelong impact
Learning to play an instrument is something that will stay with you throughout your life. The ability to pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and work out a tune can bring enormous pleasure, and is a skill that many people would love to have.
The good news is, it’s never too late to learn – and learning music at any age can have a big impact. Several studies have shown that education in early life is important for building ‘cognitive reserve’ – a type of resilience that helps the brain withstand damage from diseases like Alzheimer’s. But research also suggests that even as adults, challenging our brains by learning something new – like how to play an instrument – can help boost our cognitive reserve and ultimately, reduce the risk of dementia.
Book a workshop
Our workshops can cover a multitude of skills, from Composition to Songwriting, Improvisation and more. We can focus on a diverse range of musical genres from Blues to Samba, and we work with all ages and abilities. Find out more and book your next workshop here: https://music-workshop.co.uk/workshops/
You can read more on how music improves wellbeing and quality of life in this Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/mar/24/music-improves-wellbeing-and-quality-of-life-research-suggests
For resources to help explore moments in history through the use of music, check out our archive of blogs, such as this one on the Great War: https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/music-and-the-great-war/
England’s National Plan for Music Education can be found online at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1086619/The_Power_of_Music_to_Change_Lives.pdf – and you can read our Musical Director’s verdict on the plan on our blog: https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/new-plan-for-music-education/
Alzheimer’s Research UK explains the science of cognitive reserve here: https://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/blog/the-science-behind-staying-sharp/
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