Geoff Johnson: Children learn more from music than almost anything else in school

Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that every culture on the planet includes music as part of its concept of itself.

Whenever people come together for birthdays, marriages, social events, even funerals, music is there. Music unites people, it is intimate and it connects people with their community.

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As educators, we are aware of the volumes of research that describe the developmental influence of music, both cognitive and affective on personal growth and development, from early childhood right through to the ravages of late-age onset of adult disabilities like dementia.

Music plays a significant role in our everyday lives, possibly even more significant than a knowledge of algebra, economics, the periodic table of elements or the physics of the atom.

Yet music education, which involves listening to music as well as playing music, is still a kind of “bolt on” afterthought to our education system and is always on the list of programs to be reduced or discarded when school district budgets are challenged.

That’s a serious mistake, because we know that kids learn more from listening to and more importantly playing and performing music than almost anything else they do in school.

Let’s begin with the general cognitive skills involved in learning to read music and play it on an instrument, even at the most rudimentary level. These include developing working memory, short-term music memory and short-term numerical memory.

Playing an instrument involves information processing as well as practice-related skills like counting in rhythm and focusing on the task at hand for a period of time.

Psychologists who have studied the effect of music on brain development point out that music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. It may not be obvious but a child’s brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of music, whether just listening to music or performing it.

According to the late neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, playing music is akin to cross-circuit training for the brain — exercise that builds stronger and denser neural networks that can then be activated in tasks related to language, sequencing, and mathematical operations.

We also know that, especially for children, playing an instrument develops comfort and confidence with self-expression.

Playing in public can help children feel confident in presenting their work in a non-academic context.

Whether making music individually or with others, playing a musical instrument challenges children to work with others as an “ensemble.” They learn the importance of respecting others’ space and how they express themselves.

Kids also get to practise working together toward a common goal, and that requires respect, collaboration and working as a team — all important social skills kids might not learn otherwise, even playing sports or in a classroom that requires that “everybody just do your own work.”

Making music as part of a group challenges children to watch the people around them for subtle cues to timing, volume, and expressiveness — the same cues that we use for reading expressions and moods on people’s faces.

Being able to perceive and understand people’s feelings is a solid basis for empathy and moral development.

As kids progress from practising to actually playing in a group setting, affective skills like self-control and self-regulation become important. These are skills that transfer to so many other areas of learning.

If perseverance is an important factor in the development of all learning skills, kids quickly understand that learning to play an instrument isn’t a skill anybody can master overnight. Patience with learning fine motor skills on any instrument transfers to patience with learning new skills apparently unrelated to music but essential to success in any number of other areas.

Learning to make music on any kind of instrument takes time and effort, and helps children understand that if they want to be good at something, they’ll need to put in the hours and organise their time effectively.

Nonetheless and despite all this, school music and band programs inexplicably become the low-hanging fruit when it comes to picking what, in the eyes of folks struggling to balance school district budgets, kids can maybe do without.

Yet as world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Mah explains, “music enhances the education of our children by helping them to make connections and broadening the depth with which they think and feel. If we are to hope for a society of culturally literate people, music must be a vital part of our children’s education.”

Geoff Johnson is a former Superintendent of Schools.

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