Music lessons are often said to boost children'sperformance in other subjects. But is there any impartial research to support that claim? Diane Spencer reports.
For centuries music has been thought to be beneficial, not only as part of a civilised society, but as a way of improving children's performance in other subjects. Over the past few decades, researchers in Europe and America have set out to prove this.
Their case is set out by the Campaign for Music in the Curriculum, supported by the Music Industries Association, the Music Education Council and the National Music Council, which recently compiled a digest of the main studies (see right).
Should we be convinced? After all, the compilers of the research evidence, by their very nature, have a partial view. You would expect musicians, music teachers and the music industry to extol the benefits of their subject. However, two pieces of independent evidence give cautious support for the proposition.
The first comes from an Office for Standards in Education report on the arts in schools, published earlier this year, which said the rationale that the arts generally can lead to higher attainment in other subjects "deserves serious attention".
It cites research in the United States, carried out in 1996, which found that 96 pupils aged five to seven who participated in a music and art curriculum "which emphasised sequenced skill development" progressed more rapidly in maths and reading than a control group who followed the normal art and music curriculum.
The researchers argued that the experiment showed the motivating effects of learning arts skills led to improved attitudes to learning, and that the mental stretching required by the arts transferred to other forms of learning.
The second piece of independent evidence comes from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which recently commissioned an analysis of research findings on the arts. This includes international research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research.
The QCA's still unpublished report is expected to conclude that the findings are "significant and interesting". However, according to Tony Knight, the authority's principal officer for the arts, the case is unproven "with the jury still out".
The main reason for doubt, says Mr Knight, is a lack of clarity about the actual arts experience children received. Would pupils given such special attention achieve more, for example, whatever the subject? There were also reservations about the rigour of some of the research methods.
He added there were indicators of benefits as well as much anecdotal evidence to support the case for the arts in the curriculum from parents and schools. There was a question as to the extent to which more research was needed before decisions on arts in the curriculum were made. Maybe the need was for more focused research to identify ways in which the broader contribution of the arts could be maximised. This issue is to be the subject of a special QCARoyal Society of Arts research conference on June 8.
But a small-scale piece of American research has already had a spectacular impact on public opinion, encapsulated in a picture of President Clinton presenting one of his saxophones to a black youngster last month to launch a Save the Music campaign which aims to bring music tuition back to US high schools.
The campaign was largely in response to research by a team at the University of California at Irvine, led by Gordon Shaw, which achieved headline news. He believes that music modifies circuits in the brain, including some that have no obvious connection with music: "Music improves the hardware in the brain for thinking."
A small pilot study showed that the spatial reasoning abilities - crucial for such higher brain functions as complex mathematics, science and chess - of 10 pre-school children improved after music training.
Several further, larger-scale, studies support these findings: students who listened to Mozart scored eight to nine points higher on a spatial IQ test; children given singing lessons scored a third higher on tests measuring space and time ability than a class given computer lessons instead.
Significantly, the computer group's scores did not increase after the lessons, indicating that information technology has no beneficial effects apart from what is directly learned, unlike music.
The Californian findings were echoed in a larger study in Rhode Island with children from two inner city schools, the study cited by OFSTED. Nearly 100 five to seven-year-olds in eight classes were given an enhanced arts curriculum with music teaching based on the Kodaly method used in Hungarian music schools, while two other classes served as controls. (Composer Zoltan Kodaly aimed to create musical literacy through group singing rather than instrumental tuition).
Although the arts programme pupils lagged behind academically at the start of the project, by the end of seven months they had caught up with the rest in reading and were significantly ahead in maths.
Even more impressive were results from Switzerland's two-year "Music makes the school" project. This involved 1,200 children from more than 50 classes and aimed to test scientifically the proposition that music enhances concentration, memory, self-expression and enjoyment of life.
One group took three extra music lessons a week, at the expense of other subjects, but following the same curriculum as the other children. There was no difference in the intelligence of the two groups, but those given the extra music lessons proved better at reading and languages. Surprisingly, music did not enhance their maths attainments,as in the Rhode Island children, but it did not make their results worse. The music groups were also more sociable, better motivated and more relaxed about being tested.
The American and Swiss research evolved from Hungarian experiments carried out in the 1950s to test the benefits of special music primary schools using the Kodaly methods, much praised by Mark Fisher, the UK's arts minister.
Although the children in the special schools were not selected for their higher aptitude, they achieved a higher academic record than those in regular schools. Music training also improved fluency in their own and foreign languages; artistic ability and neatness; memory and reasoning.
Music can also have beneficial effects on pupils with emotional problems and poor physical co-ordination. Anne Savan, a science teacher at Aberdare Boys' School in Mid-Glamorgan, combined her knowledge of physiology and biochemistry with her love of classical music in a research project designed to improve the learning and behaviour of a group of disturbed 11 and 12-year-olds. She played Mozart in their science lessons over five months, and found that music had a marked effect: pupils were quieter, calmer and worked efficiently.
* The Arts Inspected, Good Teaching in Art, Dance, Drama and Music, an OFSTED report, is published by Heinemann.The fourth R, the case for music in the curriculum, is published by the Campaign for Music in the Curriculum, Wix Hill House, Epsom Road, West Horsley, Surrey KT24 6DZ, pound;10, (cheques payable to MIA). The text can be found on the Music Industries Association's website, www.mia.org.uk
A summary of research studies by the Campaign for Music in the Curriculum found that learning music helps childrenfrom an early age to improve their:
* Performance in reading, maths, science, engineering
* Fluency in speaking their own and foreign languages
* Team work and social skillsl Memorising
* Management of their time
* Problem solving
* Ability to cope with stress
* Artistic ability
Research across the world has found:
* Primary pupils in Rhode Island, USA, made better progress in reading and maths as a result of following an enhanced arts curriculum with music teaching.
* Researchers at California University concluded that music modifies circuits in the brain, leading to improved thinking skills.
* A project involving 1,200 pupils in Switzerland discovered that those given extra music lessons proved better at reading and languages. They were also more sociable, better motivated and more relaxed.