October 11, 2023
By Dr Kathy Weston
Recently, a parent got in touch to say they couldn’t get their Year 5 child to practise the piano and that they were tired of nagging, cajoling and bribing them with sweets to guarantee compliance.
It is safe to say that the vast majority of parents have had experience of a child not really feeling motivated to partake in an activity that we deem essential for their development, their futures, their CVs! But, is it right to press on or give up? And, as this parent asked, what is the point of music lessons anyway?
I remember watching the breath-taking Chloe Chua five years ago in London at the Junior Finals of the Menuhin Competition. After about twenty seconds, my husband turned to me in astonishment at such a display of talent and chuckled that our son’s lessons were a total waste of time and money. Was he correct? Our youngest was never going to be this talented, so what was the point of nagging and dragging him and us through music lessons on a weekly basis? What were we trying to achieve? For how long would tolerate cries of “My fingers hurt!”, “This is so boring!” and, “When can I go on the iPad?”.
Some of you reading this will be musical yourselves and have children who have been steeped in musical education at home. It will be second nature to you to sit at the piano and play or sing together. Your child might happily scoot through the grades and engage enthusiastically with lessons.
For the rest of us, it can feel like an expensive hobby and a source of some frustration in family life. Why? Well, we might focus too much on grade progression and perhaps aren’t aware of the benefits of access to music and music learning in general. A dip into the literature on the ‘music advantage’ tells us that music lessons are not all about grades and CV points. Exposure to music, music instruction and the experience of playing music can have far-reaching and extraordinary impacts on our children’s cognition, emotional, social and academic development.
A chance encounter with the researcher, author and teacher Dr Anita Collins has renewed my interest in the importance of music and music literacy in all family homes. After reading her book, The Music Advantage, I really wish we had kept our piano!
Dr Collins describes herself as a ‘neuro-musical educator’, which at its core means that she is someone who teaches people about music and the brain.
Neuro-musical research is a field that is multi-disciplinary. It includes researchers from clinical neuroscience, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, health, therapy and education. These researchers use music as a tool to understand how the brain learns, grows and heals, focusing on different musical activities, including music listening, music experience and music learning. Anita’s PhD showed that musically trained students appear to perform well academically and tend to be in leadership positions in school communities. She also noted that in underperforming schools, there was evidence that music programmes boost students’ academic outcomes.
Music learning, which includes learning a musical instrument, is a cognitively challenging task for the human brain. The brain needs to function at a consistently high level to even make a sound out of the instrument, to play together with others in a band or to read music correctly. Music-making asks the brain to work effectively, connecting all of the sensory processing information with cognitive and perceptual processing. In essence, the brain needs to work faster, maintain a high level of consistency and connectivity and be highly synchronised when sending messages to the body.
This level of high function doesn’t only relate to the making of music. Neuro-musical research has focused on the way that the brain can transfer the skills and efficiencies it has gained through music to other areas of learning. There are so many transferable skills that there are almost too many to list, but some of the most important ones for students’ learning are the improvement of literacy and numeracy skills, the ability to self-regulate emotions and maintain attention, the enhancement of problem-solving, creative and analytical thinking skills, higher academic achievement, a deeper sense of empathy, improvement in social skills and the lowering of anxiety.
For those of us with children who aren’t particularly musical, there are reasons to be hopeful. Professor Beatriz Ilari studies the impact of music on children’s development. She points out that everyday musical experiences such as listening to and engaging with our favourite bands or songs matters too.
Reading this research has made me think about the amount and diversity of music I expose my children to and nudged me to ask my teens to reflect on what music means to them; how it makes them feel, cope and manage in their daily lives.
Did you know that adolescents are bigger consumers of music than any other age group? Teens tend to develop identities around musical practices, preferences and draw conclusions about others from their musical likes. Particularly for young people, music is an inherently social activity. It is used in social situations, increases contact between individuals, can ease interpersonal interactions and creates cohesion in a group of people. Research is mixed, but does seem to support the notion that engagement with music correlates with more prosocial behaviours, kindness and empathy. For those of us who wish our teens would open up more, try asking them about what music they like or dislike. Which songs do they enjoy and why? Often these songs appeal to them because of the emotions they evoke or allow them to express, and they might just provide a window into their internal experiences at a particular time.
For teens, music is often a badge of identity for themselves and they tend to draw conclusions about others from their musical preferences. Today, unlike my youth where we queued up for hours at HMV to buy the latest album and were often quite tribal about our music choices, teens are exposed to a vast library of music online and research shows that they tend to have very eclectic tastes. The young people in Professor Ilari’s study enjoyed a wide range of genres and styles including K-pop (perhaps this betrays my age, but I think I’ll need to ask one of the kids what this one is), rap, heavy metal, pop, indie, classical music and older pre 90s music. Most considered music to be an important aspect of their lives and identity.
Music likely matters to you. Indeed, the music of our youth maintains significance throughout our lives. Just as we have comfort food, we have ‘comfort music’. Mine is anything by U2 or Van Morrison. What’s yours?
Musical 'reminiscence bumps' have been widely explored in research and it's known that many adults turn to the comfort of music from their youth during times of uncertainty.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you want to find out more about the benefits of music education and learning, happily, Dr Collins has just produced a PDF information sheet for you, which is in the library now.
Tune in to our interview with Professor Beatriz Ilari to find out more about music’s wide-ranging impact on young people’s social and emotional development.
Listen to our uplifting interview with Emmy-nominated composer, Benji Merrison who shares the ways in which autism helped to shape his successful career and how music helped to develop the emotional-regulation his undiagnosed, younger self needed.
If you are a music teacher reading this, have a peek at Dr Collins’ website Bigger Better Brains, which serves the needs of music teachers all over the world.
Finally, we know that many families are extremely upset (as are we) about barbaric events that have occurred this week overseas.
In response, we are hosting a webinar this Sunday at 4pm for parents, where you’ll hear from one of the nation's expert child psychiatrists, Dr Dennis Ougrin. We’ll explore strategies that we can adopt to help us make sense of unfolding chaos, cope with disturbing imagery and come to terms with 'man's inhumanity to man', whilst ensuring that our children's mental health is optimally protected. Book your free place now.