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It's instrumental to everything

For those people lucky enough to play an instrument, music is an enjoyable and even uplifting pastime. But it is not, educationally, a luxury. Schools which persist in regarding instrumental lessons as a pleasant add-on, limiting them to those who can afford to pay, cut music at their peril.

The crisis in instrumental tuition, reported yesterday by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, comes at a time of mounting evidence about the ways in which music helps children with many fundamental aspects of their learning.

Music helps children learn to read. It helps them make progress in maths. It raises their motivation, it builds and reinforces their self-esteem, and it fosters their ability to work cooperatively with others. In fact, it does almost everything we need to be doing in the classroom.

Later in life, many employers will pay heed to a job applicant with musical experience - not because they want string quartets in the lunch-hour, but because playing an instrument is a good indicator of someone who can apply themselves and work in a team.

Music means learning to listen. Whether you are listening to a piece to pick out a particular theme or instrument, or trying to play an instrument in tune and with a good tone, music demands a uniquely concentrated and focused way of listening. The more sophisticated an instrument you play - a violin, say, as opposed to a simple percussion instrument - the more keenly you have to use your ears.

Learning music is very similar to the way in which children learn language: to be able to communicate, they must be able to listen, to absorb a code and to repeat back particular patterns. It should come as no surprise, then, that an activity which encourages this capacity to listen is likely to aid the development of a child's spoken and written language.

Recent research from Fribourg University in Switzerland, based on a three- year study of 1,200 children aged seven to 15, found that children given extra music lessons performed better in language work than children given only one music lesson a week, and were no worse at maths, despite having spent less time on the subject. Younger children given extra music learnt to read more easily. All classes with extra music exhibited markedly less tension, and greater cooperation.

In maths, there is increasing evidence that music helps to develop mental skills integral to mathematics, such as ordering. A research study in Providence, Rhode Island, found that children who were given special music and art lessons, emphasising "sequenced skill development", performed better in maths tests.

Another study, earlier this year, by scientists at the universities of California and Wisconsin, suggested a direct link between musical activities and scientific reasoning. The researchers believe that the process of translating musical notes from a stave into actions on a keyboard stimulates and may even create the complex neural networks the child will use to solve maths and science problems.

The scientific evidence provides invaluable back-up for what many teachers have known for a long time: that children benefit in many diverse ways from learning music. Playing an instrument also provides a passport to still more enriching activity: making music in a group, such as an orchestra or band.

Music is, and must be, for everyone. For those who cannot afford to pay, help must be made available. A return to the days when playing an instrument was merely a necessary "accomplishment" for affluent young ladies would be a tragedy from which we would never recover.