Page last updated at 01:10 GMT, Saturday, 29 March 2008

Is music the key to academic gains?

By Melissa Jackson
Education reporter, BBC News

School music
Music can stimulate all areas of the brain
Are you an "ambitious parent" keen to try any new ideas to benefit your child's educational development and future success?

We have heard of brain training computer games giving young minds a cerebral workout with impressive results, improving their maths and concentration skills in the classroom.

But what about encouraging your child to learn a musical instrument to help stimulate their creative processes and possibly boost their school performance?

It sounds contrived, but there is some logic supporting this approach.

Studies have been carried out in this field in Canada, where - in one case - researchers found musically trained children (aged four to six) performed better in memory tests than those who had no instrument lessons over the course of the year-long programme.

In another study, Professor Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto found that the IQ scores of six-year-olds who had taken keyboard or voice lessons were, on average, three points higher than normal.

There is no doubt that music can play a very important role in a young child's development
Professor Raymond MacDonald, music psychologist

The "Mozart effect" theory established by psychologists in 1994 claimed that soaking up the music of the 18th century composer could make children more intelligent.

CD sales soared across the globe as parents snapped up Mozart's masterpieces for toddler mass consumption.

The theory was later debunked, but parents should not feel short-changed.

They may have steered their offspring towards classical tastes which could stay with them for life.

Despite claims and counter-claims, there is no dispute that music of any kind stimulates the brain and early music training of any kind may influence brain development.

Professor Raymond MacDonald who specialises in musical psychology said. "There is now considerable evidence that taking part in musical activities can influence other areas of our development.

"And there is no doubt that music can play a very important role in a young child's development."

Curriculum commitment

He recalls a recent visit to the Centre for Brain Imaging at the University of Texas in San Antonio.

"The quote I remember from the director of the centre was that 'when we engage in musical participation the whole brain lights up like a Christmas tree'," he said.

However, he stresses that no-one has yet been able to prove a causal link between music and achievement in other subjects among children.

It is hardly surprising then that the government is incorporating more music and cultural activities into the national curriculum.

It is committed to enabling every Key Stage 2 pupil to learn a musical instrument or to receive specialist vocal tuition.

Just over a year ago the government ploughed 10m into a national campaign to get primary school children and their teachers singing more.

The thinking behind this is that learning song lyrics can improve mental agility and reading skills.

The government's singing ambassador Howard Goodall asserted that music could be used to reinforce challenging concepts, numeracy, motor skills and language development.

He said: "When children are singing they are taking in information and training the brain but they don't think they are, they think they are just having fun."

Social gains

Funding is available for the project to continue until 2011 through Sing Up - the organisation which is taking forward the government's plans to get children singing every day in primary schools.

Sing Up programme director Baz Chapman said: "We think singing is not something that should be tagged onto the curriculum but has a role in itself.

"We did an informal survey of top performing primary schools and they all did singing on a daily basis.

"I think there are a number of areas that music helps with - and social development is key.

A child who has experienced a lot of musical and cultural activities is a more creative learner and is more well rounded
Baz Chapman, director, Sing Up

"A number of studies show that a child who has experienced a lot of musical and cultural activities is a more creative learner and is more well rounded.

"In the future, creative thinkers are going to be absolutely crucial alongside academic thinkers."

Prof MacDonald said: "Music is not a panacea. You can't just say 'sending my son to violin lessons will automatically give him higher marks in maths' because it's a complex process.

"However, if children are helped to enjoy music and given space to explore music, there's evidence that not only will they get better at playing music but the benefits can generalise to other aspects of their life, both social and scholastic."

And one last thought. If your eardrums are being ambushed by your child's early attempts to "play" the violin or piano - which, let's face it, can be excruciating - at least you can reassure yourself that it will bring more long-term benefits than watching television.

And any budding young musicians who want to explore their creative talents - before splashing out on a brand new instrument - can visit the London International Music Show at ExCeL London from 12 15 June.

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