Start with music

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Music, said William Congreve, has charms to soothe a savage breast. Here is something we all know, whether a poet tells us so or not. Everyone experiences emotional responses to music: it can provide a romantic backdrop, emphasise the tragic or evil, the sophisticated or sexy (note its recently discussed importance in television advertising), prepare people for religious ritual or summon up the blood and send them into battle.

Yet, for some reason, when we plan the education of children, feelings are suspect. We prefer learning to be quantifiable, scientifically measured and, if students appear to be enjoying what is meted out, then that's a desirable but not essential extra. Pleasure, on the whole, equals leisure. And leisure (which has achieved the status of an "industry" in the commercial world) is how time is spent when there is nothing better to do. In an age when no one can look forward to job security, it is time we learned to sort out this oddly puritan tangle. Enjoying yourself can also be a way of "stretching" yourself, of developing other potential skills and qualities.

And now, for those (including many committed to teaching the arts in schools) who have always known such things, here at last is some welcome scientific corroboration. An article in Nature (report, page 2) cites research findings which show that, in only seven months, children in an American study who were below average in reading and mathematics, given a special programme of music and visual arts teaching, equalled the reading grades and significantly overtook the maths grades of their peers. Control groups given the standard arts provision, which did not emphasise "sequenced skill development", showed no similar advances. The researchers, Martin Gardiner et al, conclude by saying that they believe their data show that these quite startling improvements are due to the students' discovery that arts activities are pleasurable. From this and their sense of achievement in mastering "such challenging but desirable skills" follows an improved attitude towards learning in general. What's more, "learning arts skills forces mental 'stretching' useful to other areas of learning".

All this is excellent ammunition for those who have fought the diminution of the status of the arts in our own national curriculum. If utilitarian arguments are the only ones to prevail, then here they are. Improve resources for music and you might just have an effect on maths results.(No doubt this subject will arise during Music for Youth's conference about music at key stage 2 on July 8)

Meanwhile, according to research findings in this country (Arts in their view, published last year by the National Foundation for Educational Research), some young people in England do not associate arts education with pleasure. One in four of a sample of 700 14 to 24-year-olds could not remember a single enjoyable or valued arts experience at school. A significant mismatch was discovered between young people's willingness to participate in arts activities inside and outside school. Some observed inequalities in provision according to area, background and class. And rarely were the arts associated with aesthetic satisfaction, words such as "beautiful", "pleasing" and "harmonious" being less common than those associated with communication, therapy and the awareness of social issues.

The conclusions to be drawn seem clear, if not easy to implement: improve the status of the arts in schools by not being afraid to be rigorous, invest in resources, give teachers confidence to guide pupils in discovering the pleasures of music and the other arts and the utilitarians will have something to celebrate too. Rising standards will follow.

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