How powerful is music?

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Susan Hallam reveals music’s impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people.

Music can have a very powerful influence on our emotions, moods and behaviour. This has been recognised through the ages. Historically, it has been used for such varied purposes as bolstering courage before battles, singing babies to sleep, enhancing the courtship process and accompanying rites of passage through life. More recently, it has come to be recognised that participating in music making can have a wide range of other benefits on an individual’s intellectual, social and personal development. 

Recent technological advances in the ways that we study the workings of the brain have enabled us to enhance our understanding of how music influences other areas of development. Although our knowledge of the way the brain works is still in its infancy some of the fundamental processes involved in learning have been established. The human brain contains approximately 100 billion cells called neurons that transmit nerve impulses. A considerable proportion of these neurons are active at the same time. Information processing is undertaken largely through interactions between them, each having approximately 1,000 connections with other neurons. When we learn, the connective parts of the these cells (axons and dendrites) and the gaps between them (synapses) change. When an event is important enough or is repeated sufficiently often synapses and neurons fire repeatedly indicating that this event is worth remembering. In this way changes in the effectiveness of existing connections are made. As learning continues and particular activities are engaged with over time, a process called myelinisation takes place. This involves an increase in the coating of the axon of each neuron which improves insulation and makes the established connections more efficient. As a result of these processes, over time, the cerebral cortex self-organises in response to external stimuli and the individual’s learning activities including participation in music making. Some of the changes occurring as a result of musical engagement affect areas of the brain which influence the development of other skills.

a neuron

Above: the structure of a neuron 

Learning to read   

Speech and music have a number of shared processing systems. Musical experiences which enhance processing can therefore impact on the perception of language which in turn impacts on learning to read. Active engagement with music sharpens the brain’s early encoding of linguistic sound. Eight year old children with just eight weeks of musical training showed improvement in perceptual aural skills compared with those without training. Speech makes extensive use of structural auditory patterns based on timbre differences between phonemes. Musical training develops skills which enhance perception of these patterns. This is critical in developing phonological awareness which in turn contributes to learning to read successfully. The processes we adopt in analysing speech are similar to those used to analyse melody. As a result children as young as eight who have had musical training outperform those without training on musical and language tests.

Learning to read music and associating visual symbols with differences in tonal and rhythmic patterns also seems to transfer to improved phonemic awareness which contributes to the development of literacy skills. Children experiencing difficulties with reading comprehension improve their skills following rhythmical training in simultaneous stamping, clapping and chanting while following simple notation. There is also evidence that learning to play an instrument enlarges the left cranial temporal regions of the brain which leads to a greater capacity to remember words. Musically trained participants remembered 17% more verbal information than those without musical training.

Mathematics

Research exploring the relationships between mathematics and active musical engagement has had mixed results, in part, because not all mathematics’ tasks share underlying processes with those involved in music. Transfer is dependent on the extent of the match, for instance, children receiving instruction on rhythm instruments scored higher on part-whole maths problems than those receiving piano and singing instruction.

Spatial reasoning 

Learning to play an instrument has an impact on intellectual development, particularly spatial reasoning. One review of 15 studies found a ‘strong and reliable’ relationship, the author likening the differences to one inch in height or about 84 points on standardised school tests. A study contrasting the impact of standard keyboard or Kodály music lessons with drama tuition or no lessons found that the music groups had reliably larger increases in IQ. Children in the drama or no tuition groups had average increases of 4.3 points while the music groups had increases of 7 points. On all but two of the 12 subtests the music group had larger increases than control groups.

General attainment 

Over time it has been noted that there is a consistent relationship between active engagement in music and general attainment. However, it has not been possible to assert that the engagement with music was causing the higher achievement as many other factors may have been responsible. A recent study, adopting more sensitive statistical modelling was able to overcome these difficulties. Two nationally representative data sources in the USA with data from over 45,000 children found that associations between music and achievement persisted even when prior attainment was taken into account. The impact of music participation on general attainment may result from its impact on personal and social development. Playing an instrument can lead to a sense of achievement, an increase in self-esteem, increased confidence, persistence in overcoming frustrations when learning is difficult, self-discipline and provide a means of self-expression. These positive benefits may increase motivation for learning in general thus supporting enhanced attainment.

Creativity 

Although less attention has been paid to the impact of music on creativity than other types of learning there do seem to be positive influences. One study found that providing 30 minutes of daily music instruction for a year for young children led to significant increases in measured creativity, while singing and musical group play provided twice weekly for three years for pre-school children of 3-4 years of age led to higher creativity scores and greater creativity in improvised puppet play. In older children the effects are stronger when the musical activity itself is creative, for instance, improvisation.

Motor skills 

Active engagement with music can have a considerable impact on motor skills and has positive health benefits. Rhythmic accompaniment to physical education enhances the development of gross motor skills, while learning to play an instrument enhances fine motor co-ordination. Particular health benefits can be derived from singing which can have a positive impact on the functioning of the immune system, breathing, adopting good posture, improved mood, and stress reduction. Most of the research relating to singing has been carried out with adults but there is no reason why these benefits should not also apply to children.

Social benefits 

A wide range of social benefits can develop through participating in musical groups. Being in an orchestra, band, choir or other type of group promotes friendships with like-minded people, self-confidence, social skills, social networking, a sense of belonging, team work, self-discipline, a sense of accomplishment, co-operation, responsibility, commitment,  mutual support, bonding to meet group goals, increased concentration and provides an outlet for relaxation. Research in the USA on the benefits of band participation found that 95% of parents believed that participation in band provided educational benefits not found in other classrooms, while there is evidence that working in small musical groups encourages the development of trust and respect and skills of negotiation and compromise.

Self-identity 

Adolescents spend many hours each week listening to music. The type of music that they listen to makes a major contribution to the development of self-identity and is seen as a source of support when young people are feeling troubled or lonely. Music also has the capacity to increase emotional sensitivity. The recognition of emotions as expressed in music is linked to measured emotional intelligence, the awareness of emotions in the self and others.

Social cohesion 

Increasing the amount of classroom music within the curriculum can increase social cohesion within class, and lead to greater self-reliance, better social adjustment and more positive attitudes, particularly in low ability, disaffected pupils. However, the positive effects of engagement with music on personal and social development will only occur if, overall, it is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. The quality of the teaching is central to this. Individuals need to feel that they are making progress, that they are being given opportunities to contribute to decisions about what they learn and how they learn it, and that it is worth the time that they are committing to it. This requires teachers to listen to their students and be proactive in meeting their needs.

The full version of this paper is available at www.ioe.ac.uk/Year_of_Music.pdf

Susan Hallam, Institute of Education, University of London