Education: Look, listen and learn

Music lessons are seen as a luxury but can boost a child's reading ability and language development. Diana Hinds reports
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As budget cuts bite ever harder, few schools regard giving children the chance to learn a musical instrument as a priority: music is really a bit of a luxury, they would say, compared with essentials like maths and English. But if it could be proved, scientifically, that learning music actually improved pupils' performance in these subjects, might schools be persuaded to think again?

Research from Switzerland suggests this is exactly what schools should be doing: spending time, and money, on music in school helps children with their language development, and helps them to learn to read.

In a three-year study of 1,200 children aged between seven and 15, by a team from Fribourg University, 70 classes increased their music lessons to five a week, and spent correspondingly less time on maths and language. A control group, consisting of 35 classes, continued as normal, with only one or two music lessons a week. The lessons involved singing, playing instruments in groups, listening to and reading music. The teachers in the experimental classes, who received special training, had to enjoy singing and be able to master an instrument.

At the end of three years, the researchers found that the children given extra music lessons were no worse than the control group at maths - despite having spent less time on it - and were decidedly better at language. They showed significant improvements, compared with the control group, in their ability to retell, in writing or pictures, a story they had been told. It was also widely reported by teachers that younger children given extra music were learning to read more easily.

The Swiss results have been seized on by those in this country trying to promote the place of music in schools.

John Stephens, head of music education at Trinity College of Music, London, and a trustee of the recently formed charity, Music For All, says: "The research is very significant. For the first time, scientifically acknowledged methods have been used to prove what we have known, anecdotally, for a long time: music has a very beneficial transfer effect, in terms of children's linguistic development."

The key to this "transfer effect", he says, is the concentrated, focused listening that music demands - whether you are listening to a piece to pick out a particular instrument or theme, or trying to play an instrument in tune and with a good tone.

The way children learn music is very similar to the way in which they learn language: to be able to communicate, they have to learn to listen, to absorb a code and repeat back particular patterns. Anything, then, that encourages the capacity to listen is likely to help the development of a child's spoken and written language.

Learning an instrument, in addition to class lessons, is a chance to take this further: the more sophisticated an instrument you play - for example, a violin as opposed to a simple percussion instrument - the more you have to use your ears.

The Swiss study lends weight, too, to arguments already gaining currency in the British debate about the value of arts education. The Swiss children who had received extra music lessons outshone the control group in terms of their teamwork and co-operation, and they also showed greater motivation and a more positive attitude towards school.

The case for a specific link between music and improvements in maths is more tentative, but advancing. A recent study by researchers in Providence, Rhode Island, of 96 pupils, found that children given special music and art lessons, emphasising sequenced skill development, performed better in maths tests. The researchers suggest that this type of training could help the development of mental skills such as ordering.

Michael Wearne, chairman of the Federation of Music Services, believes we should be furthering such research in this country, and hopes his organisation may be able to promote a three-year project, possibly with funding from an arts trust. "We need more scientific evidence to counter the puritan view, still quite prevalent in this country, that music is an elitist luxury."

One of the problems in advancing music education, according to Roger Durston, chairman of the Music Education Council, lies in communicating effectively with the thousands of heads and governors now making spending decisions, in place of the 104 local education authorities who did it in the past.

Four or five years ago, each authority spent approximately pounds 1m a year subsidising music, but Mr Durston estimates that with the bulk of that now delegated to schools, music has lost in the region of pounds 80m. A good deal of that money is made up by parents paying for instrumental lessons themselves: fine for those who can afford it - and the number of children learning nationally has actually increased - but children from poorer families no longer get the chance, and in some areas, instrumental provision has packed up altogether.

Mr Durston's solution is to establish a Music Education Funding Council, which would claw back some of the money delegated to schools - and, possibly, lottery money - and redistribute it around the country according to need.

Music For All, meanwhile, with the backing of Spencer Batiste, Conservative MP for Elnet, is campaigning for more instruments in schools, after a MORI survey revealed a nationwide shortfall of more than 700,000 instruments. Under forthcoming changes to lottery regulations, the charity hopes it may gain access to lottery funds for which schools could then bid.

"The scale of the problem is huge," says Mr Batiste. "But music teaches children skills, commitment and teamwork. And it's fun."