How music education helps kids build better brains and warmer hearts
By Linda Stade
Parents and music educators know we do not teach music to create professional musicians. We teach music to help children explore their creativity, to challenge their thinking, to build the skills that will make them wholly human. We teach music so they will grow better brains and warmer hearts.
One of the joys of working in a school is the backing track provided by the Music Department. If you listen carefully, at most times of the day you can hear music lessons or jam sessions or a choir rehearsing or someone just tinkering on their instrument.
It is the sound of students building discipline, growing their cognitive capacity, and playing with their glorious creativity. It is the sound stew of growth and a lot of joy.
Music education is possibly the most under-rated aspect of formal schooling. It is also an area diminishing in size and influence. This is despite being proven to have one of the greatest positive impacts on a child’s academic and social development.
If it were up to me, and a growing number of educators, every child would have a minimum of two years of formal music education at school. And here’s why…
1. Music education impacts brain development
Let’s start with the heavy stuff… Work by neuroscientists has shown that music education has a profound impact on a brain’s growth and function. When viewed under fMRI and PET scans, in real-time, a brain playing music lights up in multiple areas.
What is unusual about this is most areas of study, like mathematics or science, only light up one or two cortices. Music education could be described as a ‘full-body workout for the brain’.
Studies show that just two years of music education can increase IQ by up to 7.5 points. It may not sound like a lot, but when you consider the average IQ is 100 and an IQ of 130 is considered a genius, those 7.5 points become significant.
2. The brains of music students are different
Musicians’ brains act differently from the brains of others. They have higher levels of executive function. That is, the brain functions our kids use in every class, every day.
The eight areas of executive function are impulse control, planning, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, task initiation, self-monitoring, and organisation.
There are physical differences too. Processing and creating music force the brain to integrate several of its distinct areas. As a result, the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain is larger in music students. This allows messages to travel more quickly and more effectively.
3. Music education prepares kids for careers and relationships
How does music education prepare students for life? Well, we live in a now, now, now world. Everything is instant. Kids can access information in seconds and make purchases in an instant. I even know teens who binge television series at x2 speed because they are too impatient to watch them at normal speed. Seriously!
As they grow older, our kids get a shock to realise that most things in life that are truly important are not instant. A career takes time to build, as does a loving and trusting relationship of any kind.
Music education develops the ability to be persistent and consistent. It breaks learning into steps and requires repetition in the form of practise. This helps kids understand that time and building skills, one upon another, will eventually create something beautiful in life.
4. Music education helps students become comfortable with learning
Learning is not always comfortable for a student. If they want to learn at a level beyond just regurgitating facts, they must wrestle with challenges and embrace failure. Rachel O’Brien is the Senior Head of Faculty - Arts at Lourdes Hill College. She says that music students learn to become comfortable with discomfort.
“They know that to get to the beautiful music, they must first traverse the ugly sounding errors and the uncomfortable failures. It will take time, but they know they will get there. This is a transferable skill, so it improves a student’s attitude and performance in other subject areas and in life generally.”
5. Music education develops the human skills society needs
As technology advances and computers and machines take on more of a role in our economy, employers are looking for those skills that a computer cannot provide. They want highly developed ‘human’ skills.
Ms O’Brien says, “No matter what career path, employers want multi-dimensional workers with flexible and creative intellects. Music education allows students to engage with these skills and broaden their personal skill set.”
Some of the employment skills Ms O’Brien recognises as being developed in music education include:
performance under pressure,
thinking outside the box,
attention to detail,
6. Music education increases confidence, self-esteem, and empathy
Performance is at the heart of music education. School programs provide ample opportunity for students to perform for peers, families, and the wider community, which sounds utterly terrifying to me. However, watching students perform I am always struck by their bravery and confidence.
The self-esteem of musicians doesn’t lie only in the superficial praise of others. It is born of discipline and commitment. They set goals that they personally value and then work towards them. This fosters an internal locus of control which is the key to healthy self-esteem.
There is also a lovely sense of accomplishment that comes with entertaining other human beings. To do that, a student must read their audience, actively listen to feedback, and learn about the feelings of others. Therein lie the building blocks of that wonderful human quality we call empathy!
7. Music impacts wellbeing
We all know that exercise can have a significant impact on our mood. So, what if I told you playing and listening to music have a similar impact? Instinctively you might know that to be true. There’s nothing like turning up the car stereo and doing some seat-dancing to lift your mood.
A significant body of study now supports our experience. Music increases our sense of wellbeing, particularly making music. What a difference a few classes of music a week make to school life. Not just to the individual, but in creating a more connected, happy community.
8. Joy in education
Music educators and parents know that very few music students will go on to become professional performers. That does not matter.
The benefit of music education is that it changes the nature of learning. It focuses on discovery and working with others and joy. It is about imagining and creating. Surely these are the cornerstones of quality education, even if they are difficult to measure.
A school playing the long game
If you want to know what a school values, look at its timetable and how students spend their time. Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane values a holistic education. Part of that is understanding that the skills established and practised in the Arts are important in a child’s development. Consequently, every student in Years 7, 8, and 9 receives music education.
The College has supported this program with heavy investment in an instrument hire scheme to ensure equality of access. They also run an array of classes, ensembles, and choirs both in school and out-of-school hours.
These opportunities give students a chance to collaborate and perform, which takes music away from the closeted, technical, and repetitive lessons of my day, and into an atmosphere of collaboration and fun.
Creating a program of compulsory music education clearly has overwhelming benefits. Lourdes Hill is playing the long game in education. If one school can take on this challenge, then surely others can too.
If you would like to know more about how music education develops the brain, this short video is very helpful.