Extracurricular music may be more beneficial than classroom music

credit: woodleywonderworks, CC BY
Graham Strahle
| April 11, 2016

The benefits of music education are frequently bandied around, even within the teaching profession, without reference to what research into this area actually says. It is often believed, for example, that learning an instrument or being taught how to sing at school can have positive flow-on effects in terms of a child’s academic development.

But is this true? A new research paper by three Melbourne academics in the Journal of Music Research Online questions the widely held notion that music participation at school can benefit a child’s academic and psychosocial progress. Entitled ‘The psychosocial benefits of school music: reviewing policy claims’, the paper says a large body of research does not support the case.

Its authors – Alexander Hew Dale Crooke and Katrina Skewes McFerran at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and Paul Smyth at the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences – argue that if wider benefits are to accrue from school music participation, it depends very much on what form that participation takes. Mainstream classroom settings do not always yield positive results, they say. Indeed, they cite research that shows this can result in “chaotic environments” that are counterproductive to a child’s psychosocial development.

It is an interesting study that raises questions on the efficacy and methodology of mainstream classroom music. Drawing on a large body of research by Australian and international scholars, it observes that “classroom settings … were actually found to present barriers to achieving reportable psychosocial benefits”.

Instead, it might be extracurricular music where most of the benefits accrue, the authors suggest. They relate research findings that indicate learning music outside of school – in private or semi-private groups – helps more successfully in children’s development.

Their recommendation is salutary: “policymakers or government departments committed to enhancing the subjective wellbeing of students through music must widen their advocacy to include support for programs located outside curriculum and classrooms”.

The paper includes a usefully detailed summary of policy development relating to school music education in Australia over the last decade. Read the full text here.

Journal of Music Research Online is an affiliated journal of Music Australia


  1. Philip Cooney

    As with all research, the devil is in the detail, but the key thing I observe is that – as is too often the case with educational research and government policy – there is a desire to find a uniform program that achieves measurable results in all students. This is not the way that learning works and is not the way to produce or measure effective teaching and learning. That depends on teachers shaping and adapting to the particular context in which they and their students operate. The report also appears to make no distinction between the training and experience of the teachers, the social background of the students and the general school environment. Nor does it seem to recognise that the psychosocial condition of a child is influenced by many elements within a classroom, including a music classroom, that exist apart from the subject matter and activities but which affect a child’s ability to form meaningful relationships with the material, their classmates and the teacher.

    That said, all research should be questioned and tested, whether it supports something in which you believe or not. For myself, I can attest to students for whom music in general and music classes in particular are a sanctuary and the thing that keeps them at school and coping. However, I also have to admit that the heterogonous nature of any music class brings together students whose different emotional, psychological and social profiles affect each other, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively in observable ways that even the best-prepared, flexible, sensitive and engaging teacher cannot control.

    1. Leisa

      I find this a dangerous report that serves to segregate classroom music and extra-curricular endeavours. It gives the bureaucrats an excuse to cut funding from music curriculum and therefore staff. Co-curricular costs less than curriculum as much of the financial responsibility lies with parents. A disappointing publication from sectors that should celebrate and support all aspects of music curriculum.
      We all have a responsibility as musicians to advocate and support each other – classroom and extra-curricular. Classroom music if structured strategically, nurtures and provides the skills necessary for students to further their music education at a tertiary level. Classroom music does not focus on the performance aspect alone (as do most extra-curricular activities) but includes essential dimensions such as musicology and composition.

  2. Mark Humber

    As a music teacher that always engages my students, I agree with Mr. Cooney’s response. The negative generalisation in the abstract repels me from reading the rest. I have better things to do but I need to respond to the insult. I don’t care what your ‘study’ says, there are plenty of us out at the coal face getting kids making music in a positive way. Like I currently do in China.

  3. Mike Vessey

    Having taught classroom music and directed extra curricular activities within music departments for over 30 years I can whole heartedly c incur with the comments of Mr Cooney. It is not the quantity but the quality of the experience that the pupils experience that is important. I was fortunate to train under Dr Bernarr Rainbow,a great music pedagogue but unfortunately many of today’s school regimes have minimised the importance of the arts generally. Poorer and factionalised teacher training has also led to a decline in the standard and exposure to the music experience in many places.
    In order to work at its best the musical experience in school should be a wholistic, structured and enjoyable learning experience and then this goes a long way to producing a generation of youngsters eager to participate and show skills if teamwork and leadership which transfer to so many situations in the wider world.
    The beauty of the subject is that there are so many areas of possibilities whether it be in listening, composing or performing. Fortunately, I have not met many people whose life has not been touched in some way or another by this wonderful art. Where would our ensembles be if they did not have an eager and well-informed audience to sit and listen to them.
    I was very fortunate to go to a very ordinary comprehensive school in Nottinghamshire where the powers that be had decided that music was to be an important factor in the classroom and extra curricular life of the school. I regularly thank God for those that made this decision and the wonderful,talented and totally giving teachers and musicians who put this into practice during my formative years. I cannot imagine my life without it and I can only thank them all for the incredible,rich and varied experiences that have have regularly enriched my 62 year long life. I only hope that the pendulum will swing back and our future generations benefit from such a structured,wholistic and well-delivered experience as that which I was fortunate enough to experience.

  4. Dr Sylvana Augustyniak

    I concur with Mr Cooney. As a Music Education Researcher who has published in Academic Journals nationally and internationally, I whole-heartedly disagree with the aforementioned research.
    Classroom educators today do teach singing, keyboard and other instruments. We also have a deep knowledge of musical history, theory and composition.
    We aim to holistically work with private tutors, parents and schools to produce not only musicians but intelligent well informed music students who will have a skill for life.
    The Latin word to “Educate” is the giving of knowledge. Classroom teachers go beyond this today in teaching students higher order thinking skills that flow into a cross disciplinary approach to learning as well as complement students’ musical technique.
    This paper appears to have a biased purpose considering the background of the researchers who are from a Conservatorium with a governmental purpose to spend less money on our discipline as a part of the school curriculum.
    Music Education has evolved immense and this is because of genuine research benefitting our discipline.

    Classroom music settings, school music cultures, students abilities as well as the ability of an excellent classroom music educator all play a part to developing not only a refined musician but an intelligent and knowledge student.

  5. Greg Macmillan

    It seems from the final conclusion in the report, especially the final sentence, that more money needs to spent on music in schools, not less. The suggestion that extra curricula activities are better taken out of school, say for example for the same type of activity, sounds very tenuous. Again it suggest a greater need for extra curricula music activities in schools and more development/well funded curricular activities.
    In my experience negative aspects of curricular music programs are usually stem from, under resourced programs and the lack of music programs in the early years. In public primary schools it amounts to virtually naught.

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