Mounting research shows the benefits of music education on children

AEC Annual Congress and General Assembly 2015, held recently in Glasgow
Graham Strahle
| November 24, 2015

The place of music education during the early years of childhood was a major theme at a major European music education conference that has just concluded in Glasgow. The Annual Congress and General Assembly of the Association Européenne des Conservatoires (AEC) attracted some 350 participants from more than 50 countries.

Addressing the conference, composer James MacMillan said: “Academic research points to music education from the very early stages of life as having huge benefits for the individual and society. Musicians, governments and conservatoires need to make the very young, the musicians and audiences of the future, our pressing priority.”

He explained how the AEC supports a new ‘European Agenda for Music’, underpinned by “five key principles – Five Music Rights”, that is currently being developed by the European Music Council. Updates on this can be found here.

Meanwhile, research continues to accumulate worldwide that shows music education can have cognitive and developmental flow-on benefits for children.

Efthymios Papatzikis, professor of Educational Neuroscience of Music and Sound at the Canadian University Dubai, says music interaction in the early years can help in a child’s intellectual and emotional development. “The reason,” he says, “is that our brains are ready, pre-wired as we call it in neuroscience, to understand, decode and use sounds and melodies long before we learn to speak and communicate via language. Sound and music is our first real connection and point of communication with the world, even when still in the mother’s womb”.

Mental health researchers Howard L. Forman and Sacha Zilkha, at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, believe that learning music strengthens neural pathways. They write in Medical Daily: “Research shows there are clear emotional and cognitive benefits to having music education early on in our lives. So much so that music education in youth has been associated with enhanced processing of visual and spatial information, greater literacy, improved ability to learn a second language, academic achievement, and resilience”.

However, it appears that the benefits accrue from playing music, as distinct from listening to music. Beng Huat See of Durham University’s School of Education concludes this from reviewing 199 international studies that involved children up to 16 years of age. She says that while listening to music “does not seem to have a positive impact”, playing an instrument “benefits creativity, spatial-temporal ability, IQ scores and reading and language”. She goes on to say: “Some studies also suggest that it can improve self-concept, self-efficacy, motivation and behaviour for secondary school children. Music education shows promise for learning outcomes and cognitive skills across all age groups”.

Liam Viney, Piano Performance Fellow at the University of Queensland, suggests similarly that participation in music from an early age is a key in cognitive and emotional development. He writes in The Conversation that “Science has shown that music’s effect on the brain is particularly strong, with studies demonstrating an improvement in IQ among students who receive music lessons”.

Citing Professor Margaret Barrett’s ARC-funded research project ‘Being and becoming musical’, Viney advocates informal, shared music making around the home from the age of two and three, saying that “regular informal music-making with very young children may even have benefits above and beyond those of reading”.

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