The benefits of a music education across a lifespan
Hallam (2010) discusses some of the empirical research findings in music which have beneficial effects for individuals. Beneficial areas have been found in language development, literacy, numeracy, intelligence, creativity, motor coordination, self-confidence, social skills and self-discipline to name a few. The sum of the research suggests that when musical activities are enjoyable and rewarding, they will have beneficial impacts on personal and social development. Hallam suggests that this raises important implications for the quality of teaching in music education, particularly when it seems music education is currently under pressure to justify its existence and purpose in schools.
Brain processes and connectivity are one area in which research shows that the learning activities involved in music such as repetition, motor coordination, aural skills, develops very specific responses in the brain, particularly in the way the brain connects synapses. Musical engagement, particularly if it is an extended activity over years, will create synaptic connections which may be facilitative of other skills. In other words, the connections made may have uses in other areas besides music.
Changes in the brain’s wiring and structure are termed ‘learning biographies’ (Altenmuller, 2003, p.349) and this is a reflection of what we learned and how we learnt it. These skills may be transferable to other activities. The transfer will depend on the similarity of the task, such as the degree to which they share similar cognitive functions. Some musical skills are more transferable than others such as sound processing, fine motor skills, relationship between written materials and sound and memorisation of extended information.
Perceptual and language skills.
Musical training supports the development of listening skills, which has linguistic benefits. Musical training improves the cortical processing of linguistic pitch patterns (Magne et al, 2006) and these benefits emerge quickly, as soon as 8 weeks in 8 year old children.
Phonic and musical pitch awareness are the areas which benefit from musical training. This enhances the ability to discern pitch patterns which leads to improvement in phonic awareness and linguistic skills. Musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word. Further, this can lead to improvements in reading ability. In sum, music develops our perceptual processing systems.
Facilitating language skills, which music enhances, leads to the development of reading skills. This is due to increases in phonological awareness. These skills are transferable to reading skills.
Music reading ability is said to require quasi-mathematical processes. This skill is transferable to specific mathematical processes although it is not applicable to all aspects of mathematics. Additionally, research on musical engagement and mathematics has produced mixed results. This may be due to types of mathematical activities researched and length and type of musical engagement.
General manifestations of intelligence, achievement and music have shown some positive links. The research suggests that musical skills have some near transferable effects to intellectual skills. Gains in intelligence for students studying music may be due to the persistence, focus, and self-regulation skills developed in learning a musical instrument which then transferred to other academic areas producing increases in results. The kinds of musical activity which facilitates this process is yet to be determined, however, Rauscher (2009) has shown rhythmic activities can improve temporal cognition and training in pitch and melody supports language development.
Research suggests that students who are involved in musical training have generally better academic achievement. Other areas of musical study may also affect academic achievement such as parental support, and a home environment conducive to studying. These results are only correlational and do not specifically list which musical activities promote improvement in academic ability. It is more likely the development of some skills acquired in musical training are transferable to other skills required for learning.
What may be one of the the most important factors is the contribution of motivation to general attainment. It requires motivation to learn an instrument and be involved in musical activities. The enhanced perceptions of the self, developed through musical engagement particularly when the engagement results in positive experiences, may transfer to other areas of academic study and increase the motivation to persist in those activities.
Students who are engaged in musical activities score higher on tests of creativity than non-music students. Music students also show greater levels of abstraction and motor development (Hamann et al, (1990). These creativity skills have been shown to be transferable to critical thinking (NACCCE, 1999). Creativity is likely to be influenced by the type of musical activity engaged in (Koutsoupidou & Hargreaves, 2009). Improvisation over didactic instruction produces greater levels of creativity, such as originality, flexibility, and syntax.
Social and personal development
Music participation has shown to be positive on personal development and social skills. These social benefits lead to higher self-esteem, increased motivation and self-efficacy (Broh, 2002). Such correlations can be shown to lead to greater likelihood of success in school (Lillemyr, 1983). There is a great deal of research which demonstrates the positive social and personal benefits of music participation, showing enhancement of motivation, self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, concentration, discipline, self-esteem and self-identity.
Physical development, health and well-being
Involvement in music programs has been shown to have positive effects on physical and psychological health, such as improvements in immune system responses (Cliff et al, 2008).
There are multiple benefits of musical engagement throughout the lifespan, and not just at school level. The benefits range from perceptual, cognitive through to social and physical. Overall, the musical engagement music be a positive experience for the individual for the benefits to occur.
Hallam, S. (2010). The power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Journal of Music Education, 28(3), 269-289.