Cerebral software;Music for the Millennium;Opinion

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Music makes mankind special - so we marginalise it in schools at our peril, says Anthony Everitt

A feature that distinguishes music from other arts is that it is more than an art. The fact that it is an art at all can sometimes be seriously misleading, for music is a way we experience life. It reaches beyond aesthetics into ethics and the nature of intelligence.

There is nothing new about such an idea; writers from Plato to Vance Packard have known how music can be expropriated or exploited for all sorts of non-artistic purposes. In Plato's The Republic Socrates says: "Caution must be taken in adopting an unfamiliar type of music: it is an extremely risky venture, since any change in the musical modes affects the most important laws of a community."

The old Greek philosopher would have had something sharp to say about the 1960s, which not only saw a revolution in public morality but also in popular music. No coincidence, surely.

We do not have to share Plato's dim view of the arts in education if we agree with him about their impact, and particularly that of music, on our overall personality. Scientific research in the 20th century has revealed that music plays a key role in the functioning of the brain and behavioural psychologists have shown how it can aid the learning process.

It is rather odd that these findings seem to have had little or no impact on those who are planning the delivery of the music curriculum in Britain's schools today. Otherwise, they would have realised that giving more time to teaching for "three Rs" in primary schools will be counter-productive if it leads to fewer music classes.

How can we be sure that this is the case? A leading American scientist, Dr Frank Wilson of the University of California, argues that a strong case can be made for the inclusion of music in any general curriculum.

"Like all moving creatures," he writes, "we have a central nervous system that regulates the body in its interactions with the outside world. Because we are primates - that is, mammals who walk upright - our upper limbs are not used to support our body weight against gravityI (Therefore) we find an enormous elaboration in the brain of a motor control system that seems dedicated to permitting extraordinary refinement of movement of our upper limbs. We also have the gift of exceptional control of the muscles of the face and oral cavityI "What makes us special in the biological sense, in other words, is the unique control we have of our upper limbs and vocal apparatus, and the linkage of these capabilities to a strong urge to communicate to ourselves and no other around us. Making music involves the full exercise of these innate and special human capabilities."

This kind of claim is based on a great deal of physiological and neural research in the past couple of decades. But we can take our argument that music is crucial to thinking and feeling further. The established findings of educationists show that music in schools has measurable effects on learning.

They have been confirmed by an important recent study. A survey of 1,200 children in Switzerland found that those who were given extra music lessons performed better than those who were not. According to one of the researchers, Maria Spychiger at the University of Fribourg, music can have a positive influence on the emotions and co-operative behaviour. She says:

"When children play or sing together, they have to listen to one another. Competing behaviour is not compatible with making music."

No differences were found in the intelligence of children in the two groups, but the children given extra music lessons were better at languages and no worse at mathematics, despite the fact that they had received fewer lessons in those subjects. They showed improvements in their ability to retell in writing or pictures a story that had been read to them and also learnt to read more easily. There was less social tension in the classes that had been taught more music.

It is time for the relevant government departments and the arts funding system to open channels of communication with the scientific community. We could do worse than start with the Department for Education and Employment, before they do anything more to weaken music's place in the curriculum.

Sound is the first thing we hear in our mother's womb and very young babies display a sophisticated ability to recognise musical structures. Music and intonations of voice - especially the mother's - seem to resemble one another in the infant brain.

Underneath the elaborations of civilised life and the birth of reason, lies music - the primary language. It is only as we grow up that it dwindles into an art. We forget at our peril its original, underpinning function as cerebral software.

Anthony Everitt is visiting professor of visual and performing arts atNottingham Trent University, andformer secretary general of the Arts Council of Great Britain

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