MY SIX-YEAR-OLD SON holds the neck of his guitar tentatively, the small fingers on his right hand pluck at the D string repeatedly while he sings ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…’ He knows the string names, helped along by the mnemonic Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears, and he knows the parts of the guitar. He treats the instrument respectfully, almost reverently, and calmness descends over him as he concentrates on simultaneously singing and plucking.
From birth, we instinctively use music to engage with our children, singing nursery rhymes to calm, soothe and amuse them. Play music to an infant and he will jiggle, bounce, or move his hands in an expression of utter joy. But it’s not just in the early years; children of all ages love and express themselves through music. Preschool children enjoy nursery rhymes and songs. My own boys, aged four and six will make up their own words to the songs they’ve heard at school, or they’ll sing lines (often incorrectly and incessantly) of pop songs they’ve heard at home. As they get older, children will begin to express their preferences for different types of music. They’ll dance to their favourite tunes and use their love of certain groups as currency to form friendships and to set themselves apart from parents and younger siblings.
Many parents would agree that learning to play a musical instrument can impact positively on a child’s life and development, opening them up to new experiences, building their confidence, helping them to be more creative and adding to a good all round education but, in fact teaching children to play music has far more benefits than we might think.
Studies show that children are born with innate musical abilities and are sensitive to rhythm and pitch. And if we take this innate ability and we nurture it by offering them opportunities to learn to play the guitar or the piano, for example, then amazing things can happen, and I’m not just talking about musical aptitude.
There is a high correlation between children who are exposed to music training and higher academic achievement. More and more studies show that learning to play an instrument can significantly alter the brain in positive ways because it stimulates those parts that are related to academic, social and emotional development. According to Philip Sheppard, author of Music Makes Your Child Smarter in playing and learning to play music children, ‘can create musical expressions of emotions and musical representations of literal and abstract concepts’ thus enabling them to better express emotions and broaden their conceptual understanding.
Music training has also been proven to build and strengthen the auditory, visual/ spatial, and motor cortices of the brain. These areas are connected to speech and language, maths, problem solving, brain organisation, focus, concentration, and attention and, therefore, can significantly impact on a child’s academic performance and success. For instance, a direct link has been found between music and improved reading ability. The areas responsible for music and language share common brain pathways and so when musical training increases the blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain then the language area will benefit too, resulting in a sharper response to language. Nina Kraus, neurobiologist, explained ‘Rhythm is inherently a part of music and language. It may be that musical training, with an emphasis on rhythmic skills, exercises the auditory-system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential in learning to read.’ Stacey McMorran director of Beat Camp, a music workshop holiday camp in Gloucestershire, has witnessed the beneficial impact of musical training on children. She believes that, ‘The two things that are natural to every child are singing and rhythm.’ Stacey and her husband set up the camp after their experience as music teachers in Qatar showed them how music can impact a child’s self-confidence and social skills, and inspire them to achieve.
As a discipline that requires intense and prolonged periods of concentration and persistence, Stacey believes that music training cannot fail to lead to an improvement in behaviour and listening skills.
Expressing themselves and feeling pride for their achievements helps pupils to builds confidence. ‘Confidence is improved by pushing outside your comfort zone,’ says Stacey McMorran ‘After a great performance children often report that they achieved far better than they thought they could. There is a great sense of achievement in learning something new and sharing it with others.’ Social skills too can benefit from musical training. ‘Communication is so important when in a musical setting that social skills can’t fail to be improved. Particularly non-verbal communication and teamwork.’ says Stacey. She goes on to say, ‘Music can be a subject in which children who find academic work challenging can shine. We have seen many, many examples of this over the years. Music also encourages participation. At a Performance Assembly we held recently, we had a little boy there who was quite challenging socially and sought attention. He performed really well. His mother was almost in tears and said that she had never seen him take part like that before.’
And there’s more. Learning to play an instrument can also give your child a currency with which to relate to others and make new friends, how to work as a team and connect with others; skills that are invaluable at school, as they face new challenges and form new friendships. The benefits of music training appear to be limitless. Children who study a musical instrument are more likely to excel in all of their studies, work better in teams, have enhanced critical thinking skills, stay in school, and pursue further education. One study showed that secondary students who participated in a music group at primary school reported the lowest use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs in later years. Studies indicate that when learning-disabled children and children with ADHD learn a musical instrument then attention, concentration, impulse control, social functioning, self-esteem, self-expression, motivation, and memory improve. There is also evidence that music education can have a significant effect on the reading ability of pupils with learning difficulties.
provision at school
Music lessons in schools have been patchy and inconsistent in recent years. As the result of a review by Darren Henley, which showed inequalities of music provision across the UK, music hubs were set up in 2012 as part of the National Plan for Music Education. The purpose of the hubs was to offer all children a high quality music education. The government’s vision for the hubs was ‘to enable children from all backgrounds and every part of England to have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument; to make music with others; to learn to sing; and to have the opportunity to progress to the next level of excellence.’ So far the hubs are yet to make a significant impact on the music opportunities in schools. However, the government’s pledge to make more funding available for music lessons in schools, and the new curriculum of September 2014 (which saw the implementation of Music as a compulsory subject, for children in Key Stages 1, 2 and 3) means that we might soon see improvements to the provision of music in schools. Classical pianist, James Rhodes, agrees that we need a greater investment in music education for children. Rhodes himself has experienced the benefits of music. After a troubled childhood, he says that his own life was transformed by playing the piano.
He says, ‘Study after study shows [music’s] impact on selfesteem, confidence, discipline, behavioural problems and teamwork. I can guarantee you, if you get instruments into the hands of kids who want to learn, and you provide a place for them and the means for them to learn, you will see an undeniable impact in every other area of their lives.’ Music plays an important role in our culture and it is an inherent part of our psyche. There is a musical element to our very existence with the rhythm of our heartbeat. If we recognise the importance of music in our children’s lives and we learn how to optimise our child’s natural affinity with it through formal music training then we can have a powerful impact on their education and development, offering them benefits from academic to social skills and help with overall development, improving nonmusic learning and confidence. As such we are significantly improving our chances of inspiring and motivating our children. We need to recognise that music is not a luxury but an essential part of their development. We need to nurture that.
FIND If you are looking for a music teacher in your area, go to musicteachers.co.uk or firsttutors.com/uk/music/tutor - prices start at around £12 ph
READ My First Classical Music Book by Genevieve Helsby, which comes with a CD of songs providing a magical journey through popular classics.
Louise is a mother to two boys and a part-time writer based in Glos. She writes regularly on parenting issues for The Green Parent magazine.
WAYS TO BRING MORE MUSIC INTO FAMILY LIFE
SING DURING EVERYDAY ROUTINES Everything flows more smoothly with a song. Have a getting dressed song and a shopping song, a good night verse and a song for brushing teeth to help make everyday moments more joyful, and easier!
GO TO VIRTUAL CONCERTS Many musicians are now live-streaming their concerts from their living rooms! Try different genres, explore your musical interests and enjoy!
TURN ON THE RADIO When you are in the kitchen or in the car, turn the radio to a station that you don’t usually listen to and discover some new music. We like 6 Music, or for something avant garde try BBC3.
KEEP INSTRUMENTS AVAILABLE Have instruments within easy reach so that family members and guests can pick them up and play whenever they choose. Make music something that naturally happens in your house.