Does Handel put pupils in the mood for maths? Paul Sydney thinks so. He's one of a growing number of staff who use music in schools to enhance learning. Tom Deveson reports
When children combine schoolwork with music, parents and teachers often react with horrified anxiety. Teenage bedrooms, filled with drum 'n' bass instead of silent meditations on GCSE texts, become inter-generational battlefields. Some students turn into nodding solipsistic zombies, their sound-worlds only detectable from the repetitive tinny clicking of personal stereos. And yet many primary teachers are making the decision to play music as their pupils study, convinced that work produced against a background of melody and harmony is often better than that generated from frozen silence or from the discord of mumbled argument and peevish insult.
The so-called "Mozart effect" has probably received more publicity than is justified. Simplified versions of the doctrine assert that Mozart contains an unfailing remedy for lagging IQs, static SATs scores and undesirable behaviour. This is to disregard the vast range of idioms found within the composer's 600-opus legacy. There is, however, some evidence that certain baroque and classical pieces with a tempo of around 50 to 70 beats per minute are emotionally therapeutic and conducive to learning.
The concept of accelerated learning, developed by the educational thinker Alistair Smith, lies behind a rich set of innovations introduced at Windhill School in Mexborough, South Yorkshire. The music co-ordinator Paul Sydney speaks enthusiastically and persuasively about some of them. "We've installed loudspeakers throughout the school, so they can be heard right down our long corridors. The first thing children hear in the morning is music that sets a receptive mood."
With his class, Mr Sydney often uses Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba", full of sustained civilised vigour, as an introduction to mathematics sessions. It establishes a tone of serious but cheerful intellectual concern. If the children agree an hour later that the learning intentions for the lesson have been met, they celebrate the fact with the "Hallelujah Chorus". The mental journey from engagement to achievement is mirrored in the music that frames it.
Keith Todd, head of Greenway School in West Sussex, is also a firm advocate of ideas of accelerated learning. His staff have access to many computerised recordings which can be downloaded into classrooms via interactive whiteboards. Some are "energiser" themes such as "Mission Impossible", played to get brains ready for action in sharply focused, timed activities like a mental maths session. Others are relaxers or mood music, which may add watery visual images to the sound of flowing streams.
The staff use music almost every day. Welcoming tunes are played as pupils enter the classroom; "Baggy Trousers" (by Madness) triggers changing after PE, the up-tempo song itself rather than teachers' admonitions acting as a guarantee that time won't be wasted.
The school council of children from all year groups is helping compile an aural anthology for wet playtimes and dinner breaks. Mr Todd welcomes feedback from children as well as teachers. "Different children have different learning styles," he says. "The same music may not work for all.
We're always ready to hear from a child if they find the music distracting rather than helpful, but results so far are encouraging."
Claire Ravenhall is literacy co-ordinator at St Stephen's Church of England school in Paddington, London. She's acutely aware of the need to help pupils use time productively, banishing distraction and creating an atmosphere where introspection thrives. She has compiled her own CD because "the commercial ones using synthesised versions are often useless, and I'd rather choose what works with my class". Included in her eclectic mix is "Gymnopedies" (Satie), "Clair de Lune" (Debussy), "Albatross" (Fleetwood Mac), "Kind of Blue" (Miles Davis ) and the largo from "Xerxes" (Handel).
Ms Ravenhall points out that, along with their tranquil or meditative mood, these pieces are all instrumental. "Vocal music can create a diversion from the language forming in the children's own minds. The pieces we use help create a sense of privacy, where thoughts can take shape."
The discussion required during the literacy hour usually rules music out as an option. Ms Ravenhall tends to use it in the afternoon, once or twice a week during periods of extended writing, for about 45 minutes at a time.
"The chatting stops and there's a lovely purposeful atmosphere."
She also has some fast pieces like "Yakety Sax" (the Benny Hill theme) for tidying up sessions. "Don't use the James Bond theme," she warns, "as someone will start miming gunfire instead."
Music can be used to create severe psychological disruption. The Panamanian dictator General Noriega was forced out of hiding by the incessant playing of heavy rock. Some critics have described canned music as "aural fascism", forcibly anaesthetising supermarket customers by endless repetitions of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Stranger on the Shore".
There is a serious aesthetic debate within our predominantly passive musical culture - if music merely fills a void, preventing autonomous musical activity or simply substituting for it, does the vital distinction between aural background and foreground itself begin to disappear?
Pauline Lyons, the head teacher at St Alfege with St Peter's in Greenwich, doesn't think it's like that in her school. She has installed carpets and double-glazing to suppress intrusive external noises, in order to create a receptive auditory environment for learning. The use of background tapes during a Year 2 art lesson enables the children's creative and emotional growth to be fostered in two simultaneous ways.
"Just as you want to go into a classroom with a beautiful visual display, you can stand outside a classroom door and positively want to go in because of what you hear. It sounds calm and stimulating at the same time," she says. The school is already doing many kinds of music, making their own CDs of songs composed in class. Background music is a positive part of this rich continuum.
In Martin Scorsese's film Kundun, the Dalai Lama reacts to the enforced public playing of patriotic songs by saying, "They have taken away our silence." In an increasingly noisy century, children have the right to silence.
But they also have a right to the tranquillity that harmonious surroundings can help provide. As Dryden wrote, celebrating Saint Cecilia: "What passion cannot Music raise and quell!"
HIT PARADE OF CLASSROOM TUNES AND SOME USEFUL WEBSITES
Bach: Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in Bb (BWV1051)
Vivaldi: Oboe Concerto in C (RV447)
Mozart:Andante from Divertimento in D (K 136); Allegro from Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat (K364);
Largo - Allegro Moderato from Piano and Wind Quintet in E-flat (K452)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol (2nd Movement)
Ives: The Unanswered Question; Central Park in the Dark
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves
Tippett: Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli
Adams: A Short Ride in a Fast Machine (an "energiser")
www.advancedbrain.comarticle6.html Article on music andlearning
http:www.ialearn.orgnewslettersep20020902_04.htm Some practical suggestions
www.lazenbyeducation.com newhamsite Music and learning at key stage 1
http:home.freeuk.com annesavanmichael.html A teacher's account of the Mozart effect
www.skepdic.commozart.html A sceptical article on the Mozart effect
www.telegraph.co.uk Then search archive for article by Paul Stokes on Windhill School (October 19, 2002)