Can a song a day really keep the doctor away?

14th March 2014 at 00:00
Learning an instrument helps body and mind, says academic

Musical education is often regarded as a luxury, sidelined in favour of maths and English. But a leading expert has claimed that putting music at the heart of the curriculum could give children's learning a boost in a wide variety of subjects.

Susan Hallam, professor of education and music psychology at the University of London's Institute of Education, said that young people needed to begin musical education early to reap the benefits later on.

Exercises such as clapping and chanting had the potential to boost reading scores, while learning an instrument could improve spatial reasoning, she said.

She told a national instrumental music conference in Edinburgh last month: "We know that what happens when we begin to engage with music early on in our life [is that] our skill of hearing sounds and phonetics improve. You become better at distinguishing sounds."

She outlined an experiment where eight students struggling with reading had been given rhythmic tasks such as clapping or chanting for 10 minutes a week over 10 weeks.

The reading level of half the students in the group of eight improved by more than two years. Two of them showed an improvement of six months. Only two displayed no marked effect.

Professor Hallam said there was also evidence for music education benefiting numeracy but that this was more mixed. That could be down to a range of skills being required for maths, she suggested.

Research had shown a link between learning an instrument and intellectual development where it had a particular impact on spatial reasoning, she added.

Other studies had also shown a connection between music lessons and attainment, Professor Hallam said, but it was not yet conclusive as to whether one was the cause of the other.

She explained that learning was "a natural process for human beings" where connections were made in the brain. "Learning an instrument reinforces those connections," she said.

Beyond literacy, numeracy and intellectual development, learning music gave wider benefits, she added. It aided personal development, and involvement in music groups could improve team working as well as the ability to commit and concentrate.

It was also clear, Professor Hallam said, that engaging with music sparked creativity, and the creative industries contributed significantly to the Scottish economy. Plus, playing music had beneficial effects for health.

"Music may not be able to cure a cold, but it might stop you from getting one in the first place," she told the conference. "There is evidence from adults that if you sing, your immune system develops more strongly. Music makes you feel good. It gets to parts of the brain other things can't get to."

Professor Hallam's message to educators was that music teachers had to "encourage students in their own learning, because we won't be teaching them forever". They also had to provide opportunities to play with others and explain the relevance of the tasks to keep students inspired, she said.

Alasdair Allan, minister for learning, science and Scotland's languages, said: "It is clear that learning to play an instrument does help people to develop in many, many ways.

"Curriculum for Excellence is fundamentally about creating opportunities for young people to have great learning experiences. Learning and playing an instrument is a rich counterpart to learning in the classroom," he added.

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