The far-reaching power of music

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Research showing the impact of learning a musical instrument on pupils’ wider educational outcomes comes as no surprise to Dr Bernard Trafford

Learning a musical instrument boosts academic results: it’s official! Passionate musicians (including former music teachers like me) have always maintained this. But recent research, reported in The Times, has sought to find out exactly why.

Daniel Müllensiefen, music psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, found that children “learn to be clever” by developing new skills and, above all, a growth mindset. They are less likely to be defeatist and give up. Is this just another piece of research proving the bleeding obvious? No. Even acknowledging my bias, I think finding the proof was worth the effort and cost (£250,000).

Learning a musical instrument involves linear progression par excellence. As students’ skills develop, they tackle increasingly difficult material: without building technique, they can’t progress. Thus, the benefits of something intrinsically dull like learning scales can be seen when the resulting greater facility enables a student to tackle more advanced pieces.

Given that the young focus readily on short-term goals, the link between hard work put in and tangible progress is clearer than in most fields of activity.

Students of instruments have another advantage. Normally taught one-to-one, except at the most basic level, they have a teacher modelling their learning. All self-respecting music teachers will have their own instrument to hand (be suspicious of one who doesn’t!) and demonstrate correct technique. More than that, they can actually help physically with the bow-hold, the touch on the piano, posture, embouchure or wrist action: indeed, such essential hands-on modelling corresponds closely to what we currently term scaffolding in classroom practice.

Listening is a vital element, too – and with a critical ear. That’s another highly transferable skill. Then there’s the creative and interpretative aspect. If you can’t play the notes, adding all the feeling in the world won’t compensate for inaccuracy: but once you can play them, a good teacher can again use a mixture of advice, modelling and questioning to develop the expressive interpretation of the piece.

It’s not as simple as that, of course, and linear learning is not unique to music. In maths, pupils learn a technique and, through regular practice, gradually master it: regular assessment and other opportunities allow them to judge how they’re doing. Indeed, a mathematician might claim that a student’s successful elegant solution to a simultaneous equation is as aesthetically pleasing (and creative) as a 14-year-old’s performance of a Haydn sonata movement.

Moreover, my musical examples imply that all teachers of instruments are excellent: that they do indeed model, and that their pupils are all diligent. What about the indolent student who only practises for 10 minutes before the lesson, having neglected to do so all week? Progress = nil. We might argue that too many instrumental teachers have permitted that pattern, long outlawed from the classroom, to persist.

Nonetheless, this research furnishes, if you like, the scientific underscoring of what music teachers have always known. It’s why I believe in a broad and balanced curriculum, bang the drum for creative subjects and am vehemently opposed to their downgrading by the EBacc’s creation of a hierarchy of subjects.

Nonetheless, the fact isn’t blindingly obvious to everyone: least of all to successive governments which, over the past 30 years have overseen a gradual dismantling of music services across local authorities.

The current administration’s vaunted music hubs are but a shadow of the music schools where my generation of youngsters experienced fantastic musical opportunities. Apologists for the creative arts have long promoted their commercial value for UK PLC. This research provides hard-edged proof of music’s intellectual value too. Will anyone take notice?

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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