ANCA recently received a request from a primary school teacher who advised that at her school the choirs for all students from Kindy to Year 6 (one period/week) that had been compulsory have now been cancelled. She asked if we could provide any information that would support her efforts to have the choirs reinstated. Unfortunately this sort of story is all too common!
In my rather long lifetime I have spent many many hours personally and on committees trying to convince Departments of Education that there should be more and better maths in schools, more focus on STEM subjects in general (I am an engineer) and more music in primary schools. My experience has been that scientific evidence, no matter how compelling it may be, is generally not the basis on which decisions are made by Ministers, Education Departments and Headmasters. Sorry if I sound cynical. To counter my cynicism (despair?) and in order to provide some assistance, let me list some of the scientific reasons why more music making in primary schools can only be good.
Effect on the brain of making music
Music perception engages brain regions far outside the auditory cortex. Music is not simply a right-brain activity. It involves many parts of both the left and right sides of the brain and communication between the two sides. Music perception is about connecting sound processing and many other things that brains do such as language processing, moving, planning, remembering, imagining and feeling.
A major theme in brain science today is Neural Plasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to modify its structure and function as a result of experience. We’ve all heard about the remarkable rehabilitation of stroke patients in recent times. To observe and study changes in the brain, scientists use MEG (Magnetoencephalography) which measures the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in groups of neurons, MRI, PET and DTI (Diffusion Tensor Imaging).
It has been shown convincingly that
behavior can modify the brain
the practice of making music can substantially and beneficially alter the microarchitecture and function of the brain
the brains of those who make music consistently over a period of time are different from the brains of those who don’t
the difference is more marked if the music training starts before the age of 7
there are significant cognitive benefits associated with musical training
processing melody and harmony and the abstract qualities of musical lines involves mechanisms in the brain that are also involved in processing language structures and linguistic grammar [Ref. 1] [Ref.2]
Here are some examples of research on changes in the size of various areas in the brain between music makers and non-musicians:
In a 1995 study MRI showed significant differences in brains in professional musicians (keyboard and/or string players) and non-musicians. The researchers found that the difference was greater in the musicians who had started their training before the age of 7 [Ref. 3].
A 2013 study showed that it’s the timing of the onset of practice that has most effect on the structural changes in the brain and the best time to start making music is before age 7 [Ref. 4] .
A 15 month study of 6-year-old children showed that the motor and auditory areas of the brain are enlarged with music training as well as areas involved in cognitive processing [Ref. 5].
Music and language have a deep relationship in the brain. Music training promotes increased verbal ability [Ref. 6].
Cognitive benefits of musical training
8-year-old children who had regular music training over a 6 month period had better reading abilities than similar children who had no musical training. Musical training had influenced reading skills and the processing of spoken speech patterns, both of which are important life skills [Ref.7].
A large group of 6-year-old children were studied over a 12 month period. They were randomly assigned to music training, drama training or no training. After the year, the IQ of the music cohort had increased significantly more than the IQ of the other two groups. The researcher believed it was a general boost in IQ over all cognitive skills (not specific cognitive skills such as maths or language [Ref. 8].
A group of people who had started their music training before the age of 12 and had at least 6 years of music training were compared to a group of non-musicians. The results showed that musicians’ brains encode speech sounds with greater acoustic detail than non-musicians, further indication that music and language have a deep connection in the brain [Ref. 9].
The effect of music on emotions
We are drawn to music because of its effect on our emotions.
Voice and instruments sound similar and instrumental music is like a super-expressive voice.
Music is more powerful than words in raising emotion.
Music-making is a group activity that encourages a shared emotional state.
In all cultures we mirror the emotion expressed by the music.
This enables us to communicate cross-culturally because there is cross-cultural similarity in emotional responses to music [Ref. 10]
The pleasure response
The intense pleasure experienced from music activates deep-brain reward areas which release dopamine, and decreases activity in the amygdala (a brain structure involved in processing fear and threat-related stimuli) [Ref. 11].
Rhythmic entrainment (moving rhythmically to music with a beat) is pleasurable and can lead to the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are part of the brain’s opioid system which is involved in social bonding.
Listening to music can lower stress hormone levels, specifically the stress hormone cortisol.
Singing together releases nearly double the amount of oxytocin than simply mixing with friends.
There have been many recent studies on the impact of group music-making on the social behavior of people.
When humans make music in a group they synchronise their movements to a common beat and they synchronise their own movements with those of others. Evolutionary Psychologist, Robin Dunbar, suggests that my brain thinks of you and others as part of a larger self, which promotes a sense of emotional and psychological connection.
A study of pairs of 4-year-old children compared pairs who made music together (singing and drumming) with pairs who had a fun but non-musical activity. The study showed that after the activity the children who had made music were much more likely to help each other with a new task than the children who had not made music. The musical activity promoted cooperation [Ref.12].
Other researchers have shown that the increase in cooperation after a joint musical activity is true for all ages.
Summary (from Ref.8)
“Music lessons in childhood are associated with small but general and long-lasting intellectual benefits that cannot be attributed to obvious confounding variables such as family income and parents' education.”
“The literature as a whole includes reports of positive associations between music lessons and reading, mathematical, verbal and spatial abilities.”
“Findings show that real-world effects of musical training on intellectual abilities are
larger with longer periods of training
not attributable to obvious confounding variables
distinct from those of non-musical out-of-school activities”
A thought for educators
We explicity teach many skills that we consider essential – reading, writing, arithmetic etc.
Long-term musical education enhances these skills and also teaches cooperation, kindness, helpfulness, which are arguably also essential skills.
Patel, A.D. “Language, Music, Syntax, and the Brain”, Nature Neuroscience 6, no. 7(2003) 674-681
Patel, A.D. “Music, Language and the Brain”, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008
Schlaug, G. “Musicians and Music Making as a Model for the Study of Brain Plasticity”, Progress in Brain Research 217 (2015) 37-55
Steele, C.J. Bailey, J.A., Zatorre, R.J., Penhune, V.B. “Early Musical Training and White-Matter Plasticity in the Corpus Callosum: Evidence for a Sensitive Period”, The Journal of Neuroscience 33, no. 3 (2013), 1282-1290
Hyde, K.L., Lerch, J.,Norton, A., Forgeard, R., Winner, E., Evans, C,,Schlaug, G., “Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development”, The Journal of Neuroscience 29, no. 10 (2009), 3019-3025
Loui, P., Raine, L., Chaddock-Heyman, L., Kramer, A.F., Hillman, C.H., “Musical Instrument Practice Predicts White Matter Microstructure and Cognitive Abilities in Childhood”, Front. Psychol., 24 May 2019 https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01198
Moreno, S., Marques, S., Santos, A., Santos, M.,Castro, L., Besson, M., “Musical Training Influences Linguistic Abilities in 8-year-old Children: More Evidence for Brain Plasticity”, Cerebral Cortex 19, no.3 (2009), 712-723
Schellenberg E.G., Weiss ,M.W., “Music and Cognitive Abilities”, The Psychology of Music, 499-550, London:Academic Press/Elsevier, 2013