How music helps students to fine-tune their skills

19th June 2015 at 01:00
Study reveals myriad benefits of learning to play an instrument

Learning a musical instrument can help to alleviate asthma, develop language skills and increase migrant children's chances of adapting to a new country, according to an extensive review of existing research.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) report also finds that musical aptitude is linked to improvements in hand-eye coordination, arithmetic and dyslexia-related difficulties.

The findings will be a welcome boost to instrumental music teaching at a time when dire warnings about local authority budgets are increasingly placing it under threat.

The EIS teaching union has said there could be cuts of almost pound;1.9 million to music services over the next few years, leading to the loss of almost 40 full-time equivalent posts - which could mean that more than 3,600 children miss out on tuition.

RCS researcher Rachel Drury found evidence that controlled breathing (which is important for wind instrumentalists and singers) could benefit the respiratory system and alleviate symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Linguistic `overlap'

There are social advantages, too. Dr Drury's research highlights a 2014 German study showing that music training helps migrant children to adapt to new cultures. A number of recent studies also suggest that long-term experience of playing an instrument can be beneficial when learning a second language.

"There seems to be a certain amount of overlap between the processing of musical and linguistic concepts," Dr Drury writes in The Wider Benefits of Instrumental Music Learning in Childhood. She also cites a study showing that children who are given instrumental instruction score "significantly higher" in tests measuring hand-eye coordination and arithmetic.

But Dr Drury said care must be taken when interpreting studies. Rather than music increasing intelligence, it could be that people of higher intelligence had the capacity to excel in music.

Meanwhile, the appreciation of rhythm gained through musical training has been shown to address difficulties associated with dyslexia. Music has long been used to help children with learning difficulties, the study notes, although research tends to focus on specific therapeutic interventions rather than ongoing instrumental tuition.

The message from local authorities, however, is that the financial squeeze on music will tighten even further. "It's a pretty depressing picture," said Colin Mair, chief executive of the Improvement Service, which supports councils in Scotland. Speaking at a national conference of instrumental music instructors in Glasgow last month, Mr Mair said pressure on budgets was likely to get even worse in the next five years.

The Instrumental Music Implementation Group recently reported that some authorities were addressing the problem by introducing or raising charges for tuition.

But Aileen Monaghan, a specialist music inspector for Education Scotland, said instrumental tuition would not disappear completely as it was a Curriculum for Excellence requirement.

When delegates at the Glasgow conference were asked what message they would send to first minister Nicola Sturgeon about improving instrumental music, many called for all charges to be scrapped, arguing that this would be consistent with the government's universal approach to free prescriptions.

Concerns were also expressed about justifying the existence of instrumental music through its knock-on benefits. This could lead to the principle that "you're only going to study opera to stop bad boys trashing cars", as one delegate put it.

Many delegates wanted greater emphasis on "music for music's sake", although others argued pragmatically that its survival depended on fitting into the government's agenda to reduce the attainment gap.

Striking a chord

Almost 58,000 pupils received music tuition in local authority schools in 2013-14, meaning that 8.6 per cent of the student population was learning to play an instrument.

The picture varied widely across Scotland. The proportion of Inverclyde students taking part in instrumental music increased from 10 to 13 per cent between 2012-13 and 2013-14. But in Shetland, take-up fell from 21 per cent (the highest in Scotland) to 17 per cent.

Only 10 councils did not charge in 2013-14, with Dundee and Dumfries and Galloway having recently removed fees. In the remaining authorities, fees for group lessons varied from pound;100 per pupil per year in Inverclyde to pound;272 in Aberdeen.

Among local authorities, 12 (more than a third) had recently increased their tuition fees.

Source: 2014 Instrumental Music Survey, carried out on behalf of the Instrumental Music Implementation Group

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