Blow that sax, lick that lesson

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Soft sax is the equal of baroque Bach in calming pupils before they set about a quiet, studious moment in class, a conference on music and the mind heard this week.

Pupils may be reluctant to tune into Bach, Vivaldi or Purcell to still their natural effervescence but they might fall for Kenny Gee's soporific sax. For serenity and relaxation, the American's melodic, haunting music - not out of place in hotel lobbies - matches that of his illustrious predecessors.

"Kenny Gee is wonderful for the alpha effect," Katrina Bowes, a Glasgow-based educational consultant, said. Pupils in the alpha state are tuned into their work, focused and able to give of their best.

It had been assumed the 60 beats a minute of baroque to chime with the resting heartbeat was the only option but Mrs Bowes challenged that.

"Popular music can be used to change mood or atmosphere and make us feel good. And if we feel good, we learn better," she said.

Mrs Bowes advised: "At the beginning of a lesson, or beginning of the day you could use it to get children up and enthusiastic. Learning has to be fun. But if you are using music in class for quiet periods, do not use it for more than a third of your lesson and use it for effect. Under no circumstances, use hip-hop. That grates the brain, as does heavy metal."

The conference, at St Andrew's campus, Bearsden, was the latest to explore worldwide research on brain-based learning and its application to Scottish classrooms.

Alan Cameron, principal teacher of music at Castlemilk High and former music adviser in Glasgow, believed there was a clear recognition that music could assist learning but only if used appropriately. "It's not a blanket, 'put the Beatles on and you'll do your homework much better'."

Eighty per cent of his pupils prefer to do their homework with music on because it relaxes them but 20 per cent of the more academic or musically able do not. "They are the kind of person who likes to concentrate on what they are doing and possibly that i left-brain preference coming in in that situation. Just as you have a preferred hand, ear and eye, so you apparently have a preferred half of the brain," Mr Cameron said.

He suggested that more research was needed to select suitable music for different tasks. "We are really at an exploratory stage. Over the last 10 years there has been a lot of reliable research with proper controls and we are getting to the point that this is something we need to look at. At its most basic level, music can energise or relax and becomes a classroom management tool."

Mrs Bowes said research had shown that music impacts on 11 out of 12 nerve processes in the brain. Sound charged the brain into action and helped to produce whole-brain learning, involving both left and right sides. The left side deals with words, language and sequential, logical thinking and the right side with spatial awareness, creativity, pictures, emotions, meaning and also melodies, chords and rhythm.

While doing strenuous mental work with appropriate music, pulse and blood pressure decrease, brain waves slow and muscles relax. "Advertisers are well ahead of us in this," Mrs Bowes said.

Leslie Harkness, depute head at Uddingston Grammar, said: "I feel this has taken off from nowhere but suddenly there is a buzz at the level of the class teacher. It has caught the imagination. No one has yet tried it in the classroom and they want to know whether it's a fad or gimmick. They want to know about anything that will enhance learning and achievement."


"Nature has given us music because it's somehow necessary for our survival," Professor Paul Robertson, author of the Channel 4 series on the brain and learning, told the conference.

The real impact extends far beyond a simple notion of "it might make us clever at mathematics". Music and rhythm are basic qualities evident at birth and throughout adult life.

"When people feel sorrow, pain or anger, they turn to music," Professor Robertson said.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today