Across the curriculum: Trumpeting the learning message

Music is being used to teach modern languages, physics – and even geography. Rosie Walker tunes into a new approach
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The Independent Online

Of all the ways to learn the "être" verbs in French, compiling sound clips of footsteps is not the most obvious. But at the Judd School in Kent, a group of year 8 boys know these verbs very well, thanks to a cross-curricular initiative from the music department – and a sample from a Wham record.

Alex Short, who is using Cubase music software to arrange a series of 10 sound effects to match each of the "être" verbs in a French song, says he has found this technique helpful. "It's better than just trying to remember them from a textbook," he says, "and the verbs will probably stick in my mind for longer." Fellow student Sam Todman says he will put the edited track onto his MP3 player. Music teacher Ian Stephens devised the task after a request from the French department for a revision aid, and recorded subtly different sound effects so that students have to fine-tune their ears to work out whether they are listening to arriving, leaving, staying or any of the other verbs. "Any subject that uses sound is directly related to music," he says.

Meanwhile, at St Marylebone School in west London, year 10 girls are learning about sound waves in physics – by making their own. Between them they've rustled up a trumpet, trombone, flute and guitar. By playing these through a microphone linked to a software programme, they can see the difference between a loud note and a soft one, or a high and a low pitch.

The use of music to improve learning is linked to a rise in the number of schools gaining specialist status in the arts. Winning specialist status brings extra funding to a department: it also brings the obligation to use their subject to boost learning across the school. According to Sonia George, head of performing arts at St Marylebone, the ball started rolling four years ago.

"We started small, by looking at schemes of work in other departments and picking out ones that could work with music," she says. "Then we ran working parties after school for one member of each department once a term – as teachers we're all up to our eyeballs in work and new initiatives, so that way it wasn't too much of a burden. Now, all teachers involved are confident in performing arts techniques."

So what are the benefits of bringing music into the science lab, or the maths classroom? The most obvious element, of course, is fun. "You can imagine a group of year 8s walking into their maths lesson – they see the desks pushed aside, they see a stereo, they hear they're going to be doing a maths dance based on angles and their motivation goes through the roof," says George.

More significant is the impact on learning styles. The "VAK approach", which argues that each student learns in one of three ways – visual, auditory or kinaesthetic – is not supported by all educationalists,but many teachers say that cross-disciplinary activities can help: a kinaesthetic learner, who learns best through action, might struggle conceptually with reflection and rotation in geometry, but through music and dance might grasp the idea easily. George says combining music with other subjects helps students learn how to learn. "It's about encouraging children to understand how they learn, not just what they learn – we should be teaching the pupil, not the subject. So if they've learned something using music in science, they could apply the same techniques to other subjects."

Kate Laurence, lecturer in music education at the Institute of Education and teacher at St Marylebone, says although the cross-curricular approach is being embraced in more and more schools, there are obstacles. "Having to teach to suit exam boards makes it very difficult to be creative, and timetabling can be an issue if music isn't taken seriously in a school. But using music in this way can really raise its profile as a subject."

Ian Stephens has also devised a primary school project where students make their own percussion soundtrack to a video showing the three courses of a river – part of the year 5 geography curriculum. He says that creativity is crucial for all learning. "We shouldn't forget that there's something unique about what music does," he says. "It has transformational properties. If, with these projects, we only focus on whether they boost a school's GCSE score then we're missing the point."

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